Late last month, the US Federal Communications Commission chair, Tom Wheeler, announced a plan to propose new rules that would allow internet giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix to pay internet service providers (ISPs) for privileged “last mile” delivery of their data packets to consumers, effectively creating a tiered internet with “fast lanes”, where deep-pocketed companies would be able to protect their dominant positions from challenges by start-ups. Last week, however, most of those content providers Wheeler sought to benefit expressed their concerns about the plan in a letter. One of Wheeler’s colleagues on the FCC, too, called for the proposed changes to be postponed because of the firestorm of criticism unleashed online.
The principle of net neutrality — that an ISP cannot discriminate between packets of data — has been integral to the evolution of the internet into the innovative, disruptive marketplace of ideas we so prize today. The economics of internet entrepreneurship would be upended by the jettisoning of net neutrality. Currently, costs are low enough to allow startups to offer their apps and services to consumers without initial outside funding. Now, however, such investment will be essential, so that instead of the market deciding whether an app is successful enough to merit further capital, investors will make the decision at the outset.
In India, the debate on net neutrality is noticeable in its near-total absence. Reportedly, Indian ISPs would also prefer to throw out the very concept. Given that there is no real legal protection for the idea in this country, there is a real danger that the US example could be embraced. Brazil recently passed an exemplary internet governance regulation that enshrined net neutrality in law. India should do the same.