The key thing that should concern all of us this week about the internet is net neutrality. Here is a brief statement of things the way they are, no technical mumbo jumbo, no scholarly interpretations. The internet as we understand it is built on a foundational principle of not discriminating against the information and traffic that flows through it. As long as information is coded according to established standards, the computational structures will allow for its flow without any obstacles, hurdles or interventions. Thus, whether you see a movie or surf a website or send messages over VoIP services, the internet service provider (ISP) does not get to decide which of this information is useful or important and has to distribute the network resources to equally circulate this traffic. This is net neutrality.
A bunch of ISPs and telecom companies are now trying to take away this basic idea, which led to the emergence and growth of the global internet. They argue that they want to do it so that they can provide better services for more meaningful uses of the internet by devoting resources to differential and preferential access to information. In other words, they want to control what content is accessed at what speeds, and want to charge premium sums from users as well as corporations to have dedicated high-speed access routes for that information.
So, if you want to share a picture of your child taking her first steps, you might have to wait till non-peaNet Neutrality, Internet net neutrality debate, Net Neutrality debate, TRAI, TRAI Net Neutrality law, India Internet, Zero-ratings, Net Neutrality,Net Neutrality in India, TRAI, OTT, Internet, Free Internet, express news, Indian expressk hour traffic for it to be uploaded to your social network, because the ISPs might determine that this is not valuable or important information and hence can wait till after other, more critical traffic flows through. They further argue that doing away with net neutrality will mean free access for the poor. An easy example is Facebook’s Internet.org, which is proposing to give access to certain websites for free to anybody with a phone that has a
data connection. It sounds good on the surface, but what it ignores is that these tie-ups between cellphone companies and ISPs basically tell this billion-plus market that to be online is to be on Facebook.
They can share pictures of cute cats, interact with their friends and stalk their school mates and colleagues for free, but for everything else that they want to do, they might have to pay.
Not only do they want to determine what information is important, they also want to control where you will be able to access it, thus creating non-negotiable monopolies. Net neutrality as a principle is the one thing that is stopping these nexuses from taking over our digital lives. It stops these profit-driven entities from using social inclusion and justice as a premise to override the fundamental freedom of the Web, which allows for various voices to exist without interference. If they do get their way, chances are that you might never be able to read this article for free, because they can deem it unimportant or just something they didn’t like to read with their breakfast. In the name of preferential traffic shaping, they can make voices invisible.
What can we do about it? Net neutrality is tricky and there are multiple battles to be fought to defend it. Like all battles, we need help from every corner. The committee that has been set up by the government of India to decide on the future of net neutrality is seeking public comments at https://mygov.in. It has more than 55,000 submissions already, asking to save the internet, but the committee needs to hear more. Anyone who thinks that the internet needs to be free should take these last few days — the consultation ends on August 20 — to be heard.
We spend a lot of our time lamenting about how our governments don’t listen to us. However, if the state makes the effort of asking for our voices, we need to use the power of the internet to ensure that we are heard. If net neutrality is not upheld, this might be the last time we are able to voice our opinions on the internet for free.
The writer, a professor of new media, is co-founder of the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.
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