Internet has revolutionized the world. In our daily life from checking mails to using social network to news reading and many more uses, internet has made lives easier by means of a worldwide network of data and information. Internet works on the basic principle of data which can be accessed by people as per requirement. Hence access to data becomes the prime essence of internet network. Here comes in the principle of Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality or network neutrality is the principle as per which the internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all internet connections or web traffic equally. The ISPs should not discriminate or levy different prices based on different users, content that is being accessed, website, platform, application, types of equipment being used to access, mode of communications, etc. This provision is aimed for democratization of the internet and with the view that internet is a public good much like other public goods and services like roads, street lightning, national defence, air, etc. Even though no one has control over the internet, yet it belongs to all, and net neutrality ensures this particular notion.
Why Internet Giants Do Not Want Net Neutrality?
In the internet network there are primarily 4 stakeholders-
- The consumers of internet services,
- The Internet Service providers (ISPs),
- Over the Top (OTT) Service providers, like websites and applications who provide access to internet, and
- Government, who may regulate the terms and conditions of interaction among the three.
In order to understand why some ISPs are against net neutrality, it is essential to know that ISPs in order to provide services invest in network infrastructure and also acquire specific spectrum. This investment usually gains no returns in form of share of income of OTT providers. For this reason internet giants like AT&T, Comcast , Verizon, etc. have a viewpoint that net neutrality would end the practice of differential pricing as a result ISPs would be demoralized and investments by ISPs in infrastructure would reduce due to lack of incentive. Another argument of ISPs is that certain applications or data access demands higher bandwidth than others like streaming videos will utilize more bandwidth than messaging. For this it is necessary to develop and upgrade the infrastructure. This would also be adversely affected by net neutrality. Big telecom operators despise stricter regulations which comes along with net neutrality and also say that net neutrality will thwart any innovation and will discourage investment in broadband network unless content providers pay significant sum of money for heavy internet traffic.
Pros and Cons of Net Neutrality
First and foremost, net neutrality strives for open internet which is essential for fulfilling the sole purpose of internet, that is, access to data pooled in a network. Net neutrality will provide a level playing field for all contents and no special treatment would be given to any users. This would ensure a equal access spread to small businesses whose connection is slowed down to by ISPs due to less payment. Net neutrality is an intrinsic component of freedom of expression. This will prevent ISPs from blocking or slowing down contents as per their whims and fancies. Net neutrality will ensure that all content on internet is accessible by all and hence will prevent social exclusion of people. Net neutrality will foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Lastly, users will not have to pay additional charges for different contents which was used to be extracted from users by ISPs for faster and improved services.
Even though Net Neutrality has its, share of advantages, it is not free from drawbacks. With net neutrality, users will pay only for services irrespective of data consumed. Statistics have shown that about 50% of bandwidth worldwide was used for video streaming services. In such a case, if equal cost is levied on all users, customers who require and use less bandwidth would end up paying more and more for the infrastructure needed for high-bandwidth activities like video streaming, which they do not use. Second issue is if content is left unregulated then it will open up access to illicit, offensive, dangerous contents for any user who wishes to access it because internet has widespread illicit contents and with net neutrality in place ISPs would not be able to filter such contents. Lastly, as per the argument of major telecom operators, lack of differential charges based on content due to net neutrality would cut short returns of ISPs from their investment in infrastructure and this would demotivate ISPs from investing in new and developed infrastructure.
TRAI’s Policy of Net Neutrality
TRAI made its stand in favor of net neutrality in 2016 when certain issues came to the fore regarding violation of net neutrality like Bharat Airtel’s plan to for voice over internet protocol and Airtel zero scheme which sought to give free access to apps that paid a sum of money, Reliance Communication’s agreement with Facebook to give it access to selective content that is Facebook’s free basic applications, etc. In 2017, TRAI came out with clear guidance in support of net neutrality consistent with its earlier stand. TRAI warned ISPs against differential contents access to users. However, it was careful to provide some exceptions in case of “specialized services” like driving, telemedicine, etc. which would need higher speeds, but this had to be done without violating net neutrality. In TRAI’s approach it has been opened to adopt a nuanced view which would differentiate between various forms of content instead of banning all sorts of price differentiations. This policy approach of TRAI will allow companies to justify costs incurred in providing content to users. This was done keeping in view that infrastructure of internet requires huge investments and companies spending huge amounts will need to earn adequate returns else the backbone of internet that is its infrastructure will not be developed and improved. Subsequently in 2018, the Telecom Commission approved TRAI’s recommendations on net neutrality. The Commission clearly established that net neutrality is an integral part of license conditions and violation of net neutrality will be equal as condition violation.
Recently in 2020, TRAI issued consultation papers on issues related to internet Traffic Management Practices (TMPs). The consultation paper invites comments from various stakeholders of internet network on issues of net neutrality in link with TMPs. TRAI aims to readjust TMPs so as to enforce net neutrality in a transparent manner. TRAI also recommended establishment of a multi-stake holder body in order to overcome challenges of monitoring net neutrality principles. This body would consist of ISPs, content providers, civil society organization members, consumer representatives, etc. Who would form a collaborative framework for enforcing net neutrality.
Internet has become a parallel, virtual universe which fulfills various needs like, social interactions, knowledge dissemination, entertainment and many more. The base of open internet is net neutrality which allows users access to contents without any discrimination. the principle of net neutrality is built into the structure of internet itself which allows seamless access to any network device irrespective of the physical infrastructure that built the network. TRAI’s approach on net neutrality is needed for India which has a vast user base. It will also form a regulatory and monitoring body that will ensure that ISPs and content providers gain their share of returns and in the process no consumers are made to take the burden. TRAI’s stand on net neutrality will help in establishing an open internet network and will fulfill the core ideology of internet.