What is Net neutrality?

  • In India, every user of the Internet enjoys equal access to online content. There is no data discrimination, that is, there is no restriction on who should access what, so long as they have an Internet connection. It is you, as consumer, who exercises control over your online experience and not your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
  • Last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) came out with a series of recommendations in favour of Net neutrality, restricting any sort of data discrimination by ISPs, following a consultation process.
  • Do all these terms seem to go over your head? Don’t worry, we will simplify it for you in this week’s Five Ws and One H…

What is Net Neutrality?

  • Net neutrality is the freedom of accessibility to lawful sites without any discrimination. It is the principle that bars service providers from speeding up, slowing down or blocking any content, application or website you want to use. The savetheinternet campaign puts this in simple words, “ Just as your phone company shouldn’t decide who you call and what you say on that call, your ISP shouldn’t interfere with the content you view or post online.”

What is TRAI?

  • The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was set up in 1997 to regulate the telecommunication sector in India. It regulates telecom services and tariffs, and protects the interests of the service providers as well as the consumers.

What is the background of the Net neutrality debate?

  • The public debate on Net neutrality had its beginning in December 2014, when Airtel, a service provider, announced additional charges for making voice calls from its network using apps such as WhatsApp and Skype. The debate gathered momentum when Facebook launched the Free Basics programme in 2015, along with Reliance Communications. Through this programme, the social networking site proposed to offer Reliance users free access to certain websites. In April 2015, Bharti Airtel launched a similar platform, Airtel Zero. These services meant the user would have to pay extra for sites other than those that come under their ambit.
  • The very idea that the service providers would have had the liberty to handpick sites that the consumers could use went against the basic principle of net neutrality. This caused outrage among Internet users.
  • After consultation with a cross-section of the public and experts, TRAI, the telecom regulator, in February 2016, banned Free Basics and Airtel Zero and barred service providers from charging differential rates for data services.
  • In November 2017, TRAI came up with a clear set of guidelines for telecos, consistent with its 2016 stand on Facebook’s Free Basics proposal.

What has TRAI recommended?

  • The regulator has mandated that the internet service providers should not deploy any discriminatory practice such as blocking, degrading or slowing down of certain web traffic to give preferential treatment to any specific content. It also barred them from charging differential rates for data services.

Why are some telecos against Net neutrality?

  • Some ‘over-the-counter’ apps such as WhatsApp and Skype have millions of subscribers, but their services are free to use.This, the telecos feel affects their return on investment, as their voice and message offerings come at a price.

How will the absence of a net neutrality policy affect the Internet user?

  • Without net neutrality, Internet Service Providers will tend to play the gatekeeper to valuable resources online. By allowing access to certain sites, they could drive traffic to their own content-sharing platforms and thereby deprive competitors of their share in the pie.
  • A lot of ISPs have their own video and music streaming services. They could make users pay for apps and websites that were previously free. They could alter the speed of select sites. This will badly affect start-ups that largely depend on the Internet to do business.

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