There is nothing neutral about net neutrality
The debate around net neutrality has brought the ‘conscious’ Indian consumer to the fore—like never before perhaps. TRAI may not have been prepared for the deluge of emails (more than a million) petitioning it to protect net neutrality, or Airtel and Flipkart for the backlash.
The charge at the centre of the debate is this: that a telecom company offering users free access to one website (with the latter paying the telco for such free access given to consumers), while charging for other websites, is discriminatory.
Flipkart had signed a ‘zero rating’ agreement with Airtel as per which Airtel users would have been able to access Flipkart.com for free, with Flipkart paying Airtel for data consumed by users. As of today, that publically damned agreement stands abandoned. The outcry was too huge and a ‘boycott Flipkart’ movement was threatening to overturn any edge the company was hoping to gain by means of the ‘more access for me’ arrangement.
There could be a lot of truth to things being said by the for-net neutrality side. That left to the big ones, people may end up thinking Google, Facebook, YouTube and their ilk are the Internet. That it’s essentially monopolistic and anticompetitive. That all innovation will be stifled.
That’s one side to the story. The other side says telcos have a rationale to charge different applications according to the data traffic generated and the type of connectivity parameters (high availability, reliability, secure, etc.). As they put it, differential pricing is not just in telecom alone. For example, airlines charge differently for the space usage for first class, business and economy class, and provide priority check-in and specialized service according to the class.
The debate is far from cooling off, even as we now wait for TRAI’s recommendations on net neutrality. One thing the whole episode has told us is that there is something to be said for an open, relatively transparent, inclusive and encouraging-of-participation process. When India’s telecom regulator asked us public to respond with our comments, we did, and how! There is no way such a definitive and resounding ‘no’ can be dismissed slightly. That the ‘zero rating’ has landed on ground zero facedown – at least for now – is proof enough.
Social media had a catalyst’s role, of course. It helped build up the initial murmurs of dissent into a huge public outcry. One may wonder if things would have reached such a crescendo if access to social media like Facebook and Twitter was lopsided. Ironically enough, a similar scheme called internet-org, begun by Facebook, found itself at the receiving end of the backlash that was gathering storm on Facebook, among other mediums. Apps like Cleartrip and some belonging to media firms like NDTV exited the internet.org platform after the controversy.
The dramatic turn of affairs has given supporters of net neutrality the higher ground, much more than would have been the case had Flipkart not decided to join Airtel Zero in the first place. They may very well be saying ‘thank you, Flipkart.’