Cellphone connectivity providers have been complaining about freeloading ever since instant messaging services cut into the SMS market. But now that Skype is promoting its voice-over IP service and WhatsApp is about about to venture into the sector, Airtel has done something about it. It has tweaked its cellphone data packs to exclude VoIP apps and is expected to roll out its own. Telcos have been restive about “Over the Top” services, which go beyond plain browsing: VoIP, messaging, social media, IPTV and cloud apps, for instance. They argue that they can’t be expected to invest in hardware and fibre without hope of recompense from developers whose apps use it to cut into their markets.
However, marking OTT services apart crosses a very crucial line and violates the principle of Net neutrality, the idea that all sites and services much be equally accessible in terms of speed and price. In the US, where the term originated, the debate is generally about speed differentials between sites and services caused by throttling. In India, where slow is normal, Net neutrality usually means price differentials for services like Skype, which providers want to classify as value-added.
This may not be seriously discriminatory in the case of VoIP services, since the bulk of the Indian market is satisfied with text messaging. But it opens the door to discriminatory pricing for other services, like social media. Worse, it makes the idea of blocking or discouraging services thinkable. Since it depends on deep packet analysis, it is an invasion of privacy and if it becomes commonplace, one day, it could make censorship look normal. ISPs have to accept that their business is to build and maintain pipes for internet traffic. What flows through the pipe is not their business.