Net Neutrality

APR 28

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WHY IN NEWS?

  • The net neutrality debate has resurfaced in the country as telecom operators are backing a proposal to regulate Content Delivery Networks (CDN), which are used by global big tech companies to host data locally.

WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?

What are Content Delivery Network?

A content delivery network (CDN) refers to a geographically distributed group of servers which work together to provide fast delivery of Internet content.

A CDN allows for the quick transfer of assets needed for loading Internet content including HTML pages, javascript files, stylesheets, images, and videos.

The popularity of CDN services continues to grow, and today the majority of web traffic is served through CDNs, including traffic from major sites like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon.

  • Is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all Internet communications equally, and not charge users different rates based on content, website, platform, application, type of equipment, source address, destination address, or method of communication.
  • With net neutrality, ISPs may not intentionally block, slow down, or charge money for specific online content.
  • Without net neutrality, ISPs may prioritize certain types of traffic, meter others, or potentially block traffic from specific services, while charging consumers for various tiers of service.
  • For example, if an ISP Company XYZ, provides Services like Skype, Bing, and Facebook for FREE, and charges you for using Google, this is a clear violation of Net-Neutrality. Here Skype, Bing, and Facebook get a competitive advantage, while Google will lose a lot of traffic and revenue. Also, it is also a case where ISPs interfere with the choice of consumers.

NET NEUTRALITY IN INDIA:

  • Background:
    • The idea of Net Neutrality started flowing in December 2014 in India, after telecom operator Bharti Airtel (Airtel) decided to charge extra for making Internet calls.
    • This led to widespread protests, which forced Airtel to roll-back its plan.
    • In order to maintain an open and non-discriminatory character of the Internet, it was decided to have some norms in place to ensure Net Neutrality to Indian Citizens.
  • Stakeholders that may be affected by the issue of net-neutrality:
    • Consumers of any internet service
    • Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) or Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
    • Over-the-top (OTT) service providers (those who provide internet access services such as websites and applications)
    • Government
  • Regulation:
    • The mechanism for establishing guidelines ensuring Net Neutrality in India are at present mainly enforced by TRAI.
    • Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016:
      • It is released by TRAI in 2016
      • These Regulations state that no service provider can offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.
      • However reduced tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, or at times of public emergency has been permitted.
      • Financial disincentives for contravention of the regulation have also been specified.
    • Regulatory framework on "Net Neutrality" by DoT:
      • It is released by Department of Telecommunications
      • It provide for principle of non-discriminatory treatment, as per which, DoT has decided to amend the terms of various licenses governing the provision of Internet Service in India.
      • The principle behind the policy framework was to restrict any form of discrimination, restriction or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.
    • TRAI’s recommendations on Net Neutrality 2017:
      • Discriminatory treatment of content is prohibited.
      • Internet access services should be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content.
      • Kept Content Delivery Networks (CDN) out of the regulation.
      • Internet of Things (IoT), as a class of services, is not excluded from the scope of the restriction on nondiscriminatory treatment. However, critical IoT services, which could include telemedicine, B2B services will be automatically excluded.
      • TRAI has also recommended a watchdog along the lines of BARC India for enforcing Net Neutrality.
      • International treaties, court orders, government order on blocking certain sites are exempt from these guidelines.
    • National Digital Communications Policy, 2018
      • Establish a strong, flexible and robust data protection regime
      • Introduce appropriate disclosure and transparency requirements to ensure compliance with net neutrality principles
      • Address security issues of digital communications and develop security standards for equipment and devices;
      • Formulate a policy on encryption and data retention;
      • Develop a comprehensive plan for network preparedness, disaster response relief, restoration and reconstruction.
  • Impact of these regulations:
    • In light of strengthening India's Net neutrality norms, Telecom operator Airtel was forced to withdraw a plan to charge extra for internet calls, and shut down a platform called Airtel Zero, which allowed customers to access a few mobile applications for free ("zero rating").
    • Others, including Facebook and Google, were also forced to abandon their zero-rating platforms and deals.
    • The most visible casualty was Facebook's Free Basics service, which offered Indians free access to a limited number of websites.

 

WHY NET NEUTRALITY IS NEEDED?

  • Unlocking Possibilities:
    • Open and non-discriminatory access to the Internet has led to rapid growth in people-to people, business-to-people and government-to-people communications shaping new forms of social interactions, businesses, and governance.
  • Important component of open internet:
    • Where policies such as equal treatment of data and open web standards allow those on the Internet to easily communicate with each other without interference from a third party.
  • Level playing field:
    • Without net neutrality, ISPs can slow down the websites or services of small businesses that can’t afford to pay for the so-called fast lanes.
  • Freedom of expression and free speech:
    • ISPs shouldn’t be able to block content or slow down webpages just because they don’t like them.
    • With no net neutrality legislation, nothing stops them from censoring online content.
  • No exclusion:
    • Net neutrality guarantees that everything on the internet is available to everyone.
    • If accessing high quality content online becomes a luxury, this will increase social exclusion and decrease equal access.
  • Supporting innovative ideas:
    • Net neutrality has enabled an ecosystem for creation of Google, Facebook, Twitter and countless other services.
    • All these services had very humble beginnings. They started as a basic websites with modest resources.

CHALLENGES IN IMPLEMENTATION OF NET NEUTRALITY

  • No legislation to enforce net neutrality:
    • In India, there is no legislation in place to enforce net neutrality, except some Regulations and Policy by TRAI and DoT.
    • India still needs to wait for a legislative intervention in this field, till then these Regulations and Policies would provide ample guidelines for ensuring net neutrality in India
  • Affects projects that bring affordable internet access:
    • Example:
      • Internet.org is a partnership between Social Networking services company Facebook and six other companies that plan to bring affordable access to selected Internet services to less developed countries.
      • Free basics’ is the name of the app that delivers these services.
      • Regulators banned the Free Basics service in India as it violates the concept of Net Neutrality.
  • India not part of ‘Declaration for the Future of the Internet’:
    • It is a political commitment by 61 countries (including the US and all EU member states)
    • It aims to challenge rising digital authoritarianism and ensure principles of Net Neutrality.
    • India is not among the countries that have signed the Declaration.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST NET NEUTRALITY

  • Limited Bandwidth:
    • Unlike an infinite resource, the bandwidth of the Net is limited. If someone is using Skype or YouTube, he/she needs a lot of bandwidth and that too on priority.
    • It can be argued that he/she should pay a higher price.
    • As work from home becomes the new normal, regulators around the world have come under pressure to relook at the rules relating to bandwidth, traffic and indeed network neutrality.
  • Illicit content:
    • Offensive, dangerous, and illegal content is accessible to everyone and difficult to remove. Removing net neutrality makes it easier for ISPs to filter dangerous content.
  • Lack of new infrastructure:
    • With net neutrality, large amounts of data are consumed without being paid for – this money could be used to expand the high-speed network to rural areas.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Transparency:
    • ISPs should make adequate disclosures to the users about their traffic management policies, tools and intervention practices to maintain transparency and allow users to make informed choices.
  • Clarity on violation of this principle during public emergency:
    • Prioritisation of government information in times of public crises certainly is important, there needs to be more deliberation on the list of websites and URLs that Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) will allow being zero rated during emergency.
  • Adopt recommendations of A.K. Bhargava committee (2015) on Net Neutrality:
    • Legitimate traffic management practices may be allowed but should be tested against the core principles of Net Neutrality. Further, Improper (Paid or otherwise) Prioritization may not be permitted.
    • India specific Net Neutrality approach should be formulated by taking into account international best practices that serve specific needs of the country.
    • The primary goals of public policy in the context of Net Neutrality should be directed towards achievement of developmental aims of the country by facilitating Affordable Broadband, Quality Broadband and Universal Broadband for its citizens.
    • User rights on the Internet need to be ensured so that Telecom or Internet Service Providers do not restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use.
    • Over-the-top (OTT) application services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in their expansion and growth should be removed.
    • In order to deal with the complexities of the new digital world, a think-tank with best talent may also be set up.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. Explain the concept of net neutrality? Analyse the relevance of this principle in ensuring equitable access to internet in India