Tuesday, 14 April 2015

All You need to know about Net Neutrality :

shutterstock_Net_Neutrality_1Until a few weeks ago, most web users in India hadn't even heard of a concept known as net neutrality. But now there is a debate raging on this topic. So what is net neutrality and why the Indian web users are excitedly, and sometimes angrily, talking about it? We explain the whole issue to you in this handy guide and tell you why you should or should not care about it. What is Net Neutrality? Internet is inherently neutral (more or less). The father of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee himself revealed that it was designed as neutral medium. "When I designed the Web, I deliberately built it as a neutral, creative and collaborative space, building on the openness the Internet offered. My vision was that anyone, anywhere in the world could share knowledge and ideas without needing to buy a license or ask permission from myself or any CEO, government department or committee. This openness unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and it is still powering new breakthroughs in science, commerce, culture and much more besides." This neutral character of internet comes from the concept of net neutrality that is at the centre of it. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee puts it, net neutrality at the core means "each 'packet' of data must be treated equally by the network". He further emphasises that there should be no censorship and the state should not restrict any legal content by the citizens. Why is it important? Purely for the sake of innovation on the web, net neutrality is imperative. If the fabric of the net was not neutral back in the 90's, then we would've existed in a world without the likes of a Google and Facebook. Now, the irony is that some of these big internet companies are in cahoots with telecom operators and are in ways breaking the fabric of the internet. The principle of net neutrality can be broken in many ways. In the US, some service providers toyed with the idea of a 'fast lane' for certain services. Even in India, Airtel, decided to charge extra for Internet VOIP services like WhatsApp, but thanks to a timely backlash on social media, it decided against to go ahead with the plan. The basic idea is that every packet of data has to be treated normally - in terms of speed, access and cost for the sake of innovation and long term health of the world wide web, and more importantly to avoid fragmentation. Airtel has come up with a new marketing platform called Airtel Zero. Through this plan developers who sign up for Airtel Zero will pick up the data charges for parts or all elements of their app, hence making the data charges for the app free for the consumers. So, it has been reported that Flipkart has signed up for Airtel Zero, which means that users of Airtel's network will get access to the Flipkart app without any data costs. So what Airtel and Flipkart seem to be doing wrong? On the face of it, it looks like a great idea, but this is just a case of fluffing around the details. What happens to a Snapdeal, Amazon on Airtel. For a consumer for whom, the data charges are an expensive proposition, he/she will naturally gravitate towards Flipkart over Amazon or Snapdeal. Airtel for its part says that it is non-discriminatory and the charges and speeds will remain the same for all who sign up. But what happens, if there's a new e-commerce site that can't afford Airtel Zero? The venture is already handicapped no matter how innovative it may be. Worse if you are on a network like Vodafone or Idea. They don't have such a plan in place, so app developers and users will naturally gravitate towards Airtel. That said, this may not last for long as every telco will come up with similar plans if the regulators don't intervene. We could live in a world where Snapdeal could work better on Vodafone, Amazon would work better on Idea and Flipkart on Airtel. It will fragment the nature of the experience and its cost. These services will also be known as zero rated services. While Airtel claims that it will not make any changes but time and again telecom operators have shown that they cannot be trusted. What are the regulators and government doing about this? Unfortunately, as Net Neutrality is such a new concept there are no regulatory rules regarding it. TRAI, the telecom regulatory authority in India recently came up with a paper for the formation of regulations regarding net neutrality and the fate of over the top (OTT) Internet based services like WhatsApp. The big problem is that the TRAI paper seems to be paying lip service to the telecom operators and ISPs. For instance, it still defines broadband Internet at 512kbps, which essentially gives full latitude to the operators to throttle speeds. TRAI's paper also says that OTTs are eating massive chunks out of the revenue incurred by traditional voice services. While this is true, new age apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype provide calls over the Internet which are cheaper. Eventually as the quality of the internet improves, these apps could essentially replace the traditional voice call and this scares the telecom operators as instant messages have killed the revenue of the SMS and they are trying to stifle innovation so that they can maintain the status quo. To the credit of the government, in the wake of the uproar, the department of telecom is looking into Airtel's Zero marketing platform that could possibly offer preferential treatment to internet companies and app developers. Even mainstream politicians like Tathagata Satpathy and Rajeev Chandrashekhar have come out panning the TRAI consultation paper on net neutrality. What you can do about this? Actually more than the government or TRAI, the average Indian is doing more to save the fabric of the internet. Users have revolted on social media and many people have started giving the Flipkart app '1 star' rating because it is in cahoots with Airtel. Now that may not be entirely fair to Flipkart but then that is how users are reacting. But more important is that you reply to TRAI. Whether you support net neutrality or you don't, share your views with TRAI as part of the consultation process. There is a petition on Change.Org, which wants TRAI to not 'allow differential pricing of services on the Internet & let the consumers choose how they want to use Internet'. The petition has already 1,58,167 supporters. A new website called SavetheInternet.in has been created that allows people to make arguments to the TRAI in favour of net neutrality within the framework of its consultation paper. The deadline for the same is April 24th. The website allows people to send email to TRAI on net neutrality in just two clicks. You can use that. If you want to write down your own responses to TRAI's consultation paper, do that and send it to advqos@trai.gov.in.

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