25 May 2015 19:43 IST

Why net neutrality makes sense for India

Any other approach goes against the individual's right to choose

The net neutrality debate seems more like a struggle for rights. Those fighting for neutrality are largely ordinary citizens, netizens and their associations, pitted against a handful of internet service providers who want to control what sites and applications people access and at what speed. As one of the supporters of net neutrality, here are my views of the internet and why it should retain its present form.

To start with, nobody ‘owns’ the internet, least of all the telecom companies and internet service providers. They are not the owners of content on the internet either. In several countries, the telecom and telegraph operations are treated as a public utility.

If we draw a parallel, the internet is a communication or networking medium today, and the service providers are performing the operations of a public utility of facilitating access in the medium. They may be private entities, but that does not change the core dimension of communication. Therefore, they have no right to judge for themselves what information is entitled to faster speed and what is not, other than giving the users equal access to the content on the web.

E-commerce revolution

There is no doubt that the internet has changed the way business is done. The “free” nature of the internet has helped spawn a new breed of entrepreneurs who have been able to reach out to consumers and investors across geographical and political borders, taking ideas and solutions to unreachable locations. The internet has provided such a levelled playing field that an Amazon could stand against a well-entrenched Walmart in the retailing space. With its ubiquity, the internet has become the cornerstone of a number of start-ups. This would not have been possible if telecom companies had the right to decide different “speed streams” for different web applications.

The internet has had a major social impact in developing countries. It has helped bring geographically dispersed people closer, who did not have the luxury of a well-developed fixed line telephony, and where poor physical infrastructure made delivering basic public services almost impossible. The internet is not a substitute for roads and electricity, but it has facilitated faster cash transfers from a breadwinner in a metro city to his family in a remote village, to cite an instance. It is the internet which has kindled a hope of taking education to distant corners through online classes.

It was the fundamental “free” characteristic of the internet, as it is today, that enabled people to think of telemedicine and providing market information to farmers. Above all, one cannot forget what can be called a revolution in Egypt in 2011. Social media was the means, neutral internet was the enabler. Can any internet service provider, in its finite wisdom, ascertain which services deserve faster speed at high charges, low charges or no charges?

Fine balance

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has done a good job of consulting different stakeholders and seeking their views on net neutrality. This makes the decision process inclusive, democratic and transparent. However, the TRAI, like any regulator, faces the challenging task of achieving the fine balance between profitability of the entities it regulates, and the public good. Internet service providers have argued that improving services requires investment, which cannot happen unless their operations are profitable. They cite price discrimination as an important tool in free markets, and hence their argument becomes logical. These arguments do not hold water.

First, the market for internet service providers is not entirely free or perfectly competitive, since it is more of an oligopoly. If it were indeed free, then it would have been easier for a new competitor to enter and offer services more efficiently, attract investments and take care of future growth. Second, market failure does happen when there is information asymmetry. So, if the service providers do not allow the users equal access to all legal content of the internet, they are creating information asymmetry and defeating the very nature of free markets they base their arguments on.

Equal for all

And, last, nobody is contesting the right to price discrimination by service providers. But there are ways to price discriminate while allowing uniform access to all online content. For example, the toll booth on a highway has different tolls for different sizes of vehicles and the toll is levied every time the highway is used by the vehicle.

The highway operator assures equal access of the road to all users, and does not discriminate on the basis of destination, the make and model of the vehicle or the purpose of the vehicle. Perhaps, the TRAI and internet service providers can draw some apt lessons for such examples and keep the internet neutral to all kinds of users and legal content.

Today, the internet is a great leveller. The possibility of equal access to content and applications on the internet can generate ideas that can benefit society in ways one cannot imagine. The approach against net neutrality goes against the right to choice of individuals and can kill competition, especially that arising out of disruptive innovations of some so-called crazy brains whose ideas can bring the world closer. Net neutrality has to be maintained for the greater good.

The writer, a graduate of IIM-A, is a member of the student wing of the AIADMK and a Coimbatore-based entrepreneur.


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