Why you need to make some noise over net neutrality… In India.

Imagine this scenario. Your monthly electricity bill arrives. You expect it to state one amount based on the number of units you’ve consumed. But it looks something like this:

Electricity payment for consumption by TV – Rs. 500

Electricity payment for consumption by light bulbs – Rs. 300

Electricity payment for consumption by Laptops and Smart phones – Rs. 800

Well, you would be correct in exclaiming what kind of bullcrap the bill is.

Guess what? Your Internet Service Provider is trying to do the same with you.

Let me get to the point. Net neutrality means that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the government HAVE to treat all data on the internet equally. Simply put the only commandment is, “Thou shall not discriminate among different web services.”

So, where is the conflict in India?

Here –Airtel wants you to pay extra for Voice over IP (VoIP) services that are Skype and Viber. (http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/12/24/bharti-airtel-rates-idINKBN0K20SU20141224)

This is not new; Airtel chief Mr. Bharti has wanted to do this for quite some time now.

Here’s what he said at the World Mobile Congress in 2012 “When somebody watches YouTube on a mobile phone and ends up [with a] big bill, he curses under his breath at the telecom operators. But YouTube is consuming a massive amount of resources on our network. Somebody’s got to pay for that.” (www.cnet.com/news/mobile-operators-stop-picking-on-us-or-else/)

Mr. Bharti, we are paying for that. It’s called the amount we pay for having internet.

However, Airtel is not the only player.Airtel has come out openly with its plan to charge VoIPs which has drawn flak from all of us. However, certain other ISPs have been doing this too.

Here’s a list –While Airtel wants to charge extra for VoIPs, our homegrown and amazing BSNL is of the opinion that VoIPs like Skype are illegal. *insert slow clap* (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/industry-and-economy/info-tech/as-debate-over-net-telephony-rages-govt-to-reexamine-services-offered-by-skype-google/article4404537.ece)

Why has BSNL taken this stand? BSNL introduced its video calling services. Now these services are at a very affordable rate of Rs. 2.5 per minute. *Public Welfare, you say?* It has no data consumption and requires you to purchase certain hardware from BSNL. *you don’t say*

Now, how do we make consumers go for a paid service like that offered by BSNL from the free services offered by Skype and Hangout? Simple, I declare that Skype and Hangouts are illegal.

Another proposed way is by the ISPs demanding popular services like Whatsapp and Facebook to pay them (ISPs) revenue for using their services. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/tech-news/Facebook-WhatsApp-others-must-be-taxed-Vodafone/articleshow/44820006.cms )

One more way is by providing preferential access to certain services whereby a differential treatment is meted out to other similar services. This has been one of the contentions especially in the US debates on net neutrality. TRAI was recently investigating into Airtel and Uninor providing special deals for Whatsapp and Facebook. (http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-11-25/news/56455517_1_net-neutrality-mobile-data-services-uninor)  Going a little Latin here does this amount to inclusio unius est exclusion alterius – meaning, by including one do you exclude all others? Does the faster speed channel immediately mean slower speed for all others, and if so don’t you violate the free access and the demand supply feature which is the basis of the Internet?

So, what remedy do we have?The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which is in charge of this essentially is of the opinion that Airtel and like ISPs can’t be held responsible for breaching Net Neutrality.

Here’s what the TRAI chief had to say about Airtel’s move – (http://www.financialexpress.com/article/industry/companies/cant-fault-airtel-on-voip-rates-rahul-khullar/23513/ )

“Let’s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there’s no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator.

It is quite nice to note here that in 2006, TRAI had invited opinions regarding the regulation of net neutrality. You can access it here. (http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReaddata/ConsultationPaper/Document/consultation27dec06.pdf)However, no action was taken on it, no law was made. And now the same is being used to protect institutions which are breaching Net Neutrality.

So, what do we do? We demand a law. AND we demand that this manhandling by ISPs be stopped right away.

Net neutrality is pious to me and all those who hold the internet dear and unless we enforce it properly, it is definitely going to come and bite us in the wallets.

http://www.netneutrality.in has a fascinating approach to make the government recognize the need to have a law in place. [Send an email as I have to Ravi Shankar Prasad. Union Minister, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology –ravis@sansad.nic.in AND TRAI. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. ap@trai.gov.in, secretary@trai.gov.in]

I understand that businesses are going to take a short hit due to web services replacing calls (Skype, Hangouts, Viber and other VoIPs) as also Messaging services (Whatsapp, Messenger etc.). But we need to accept that development of technology will render other technology obsolete. What you need to do is improve your services *cough Customer Care cough* and not charge for services which are actually boosting your internet sales. Can ISPs actually afford to take such action especially in a country with 243 million internet users and increasing exponentially – MORE than even the USA? (http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2014/07/07/indias-massive-e-commerce-opportunity-and-the-explosion-of-mobile/) A little business sense would suggest that the revenue from increasing subscriptions would far outweigh the lost revenue on snail calls and SMSes.

That’s it for now.

Watch this space for more updates. In the meanwhile keep yourself educated about net neutrality because ignorance is not bliss. Two of my favourite sources who make net neutrality fun to read – The Oatmeal (herewww.theoatmeal.com/blog/net_neutrality ) and the one and only John Oliver (here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU)