India is going to lose the net neutrality debate

And it won’t be because of Airtel Zero or TRAI. It will be because of our inaction.

The Internet is the biggest democratizing platform of our generation. The Internet is where we meet people, entertain ourselves, learn and now at a very increasing speed, it’s where we do business. For the first time in the entire human history, numerous barriers that were major roadblocks until just a few years ago, such as racial, geographical and even economical have fallen apart enabling an increasing number of people with a level playing field. The Internet does not discriminate and it’s open for all. Anybody from India can now start a company that can provide services to the entire country, and even to the whole world, only because of the open structure of the Internet.

A primer on what net neutrality is and why it's important:

Net neutrality or Internet neutrality means that after you buy an internet connection from a company like Airtel, you should be able to access the entirety of the World Wide Web at the same price per data units consumed. Therefore, your service provider should not discriminate against a service and neither should it favor one. Service providers should not have differential pricing for services on the Internet. A situation where you have to pay extra for one website as opposed to a competitor that you can access for free is going to hurt not only the competitor, but also you as a consumer by taking away your right to choose. Ever heard about companies bribing governments to win contracts?

This is basically the same thing, with the only difference being that bribing is illegal in this country, but this is about to be legalised.

TRAI has been gracious enough to consult the public on this by releasing a consultation paper, and in adherence to Indian government’s understanding of the Internet, it is borderline retarded. The paper is one-sided and favours the telecom players over the rights of Indian citizens. Which companies lobbied and conspired with the govt. to get this biased paper written is anybody’s guess (hint: it’s the freaking telecom operators). Amongst a varying range of completely ridiculous things the paper states, it suggests that phone calls made over Skype and other VOIP services should cost the same as normal voice calls because the poor operators don’t make enough money already, and the paper begs us to sympathise with their cause (lest Airtel commit suicide because of being cash strapped and not being able to feed it’s children). Myopic Airtel needs to understand that if VOIP calls are cheaper, more people will start using data, and their income will grow, not decline. But you know what’s better than growth? Obnoxious levels of growth. Airtel wants to suck each and every drop of our blood, and our government wants to give them a syringe so they don’t have to get their teeth all dirty.

Imagine if your electricity distribution companies – Tata or Reliance / BSES or whoever would suddenly get up and start charging more for electricity from you if you used efficient light bulbs, or if you were used appliances that consumed less electricity. Because they made less money as a result of your smartness.

– Mahesh Murthy

Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality
Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality

The very fabric of the Internet that keeps it great is now in grave danger thanks to corporate greed and government inaction coupled with a worrying disinterest from the general public. And the scariest thing is that you are gong to do nothing about it. Because you don’t care. Even our tech industry doesn’t really care at all. People who themselves have built immense companies thanks to the open Internet are now doing their best to destroy it. Companies like Whatsapp and Flipkart, that gained popularity only through word of mouth, are now entering into deals with operators to make their apps free for their subscribers. So if someone today wants to start an eCommerce company, they are never going to be able to afford to get the audience that Flipkart has, because a lot of their potential users will never bother to pay to access their services, even if the new service is better because they can access Flipkart for free.

The lack of support shown by the Indian tech community is alarming. To be fair, many have openly stated that they support net neutrality. But these are few and far in between. The large majority just seem to not care. But worse still, many of them are actually against net neutrality!  Even companies like Wikimedia and Google that championed net neutrality in the US have worryingly sided with the telecoms in India. But I guess we can’t expect them to fight for us, when we ourselves are not willing to. And when the “early adopter” community, the people whose lives and livelihood depend on the Internet don’t talk about it, no one else will.

Going forward, Internet is going to be the most important factor affecting the world economy and if India wants to be a major player in the new world, we have to get this right. The danger of what might happen otherwise is too grim to even imagine. This is going to obliterate our chances of being an important part of the innovation sphere. We can’t risk that at any cost, and especially not just to help Airtel make more money.

This is also not an issue that will affect us in some distant future, it is affecting us now. Airtel and Reliance have both already violated net neutrality and it is going to get worse. Unless, of course, you take action.

Take action: We deserve only the freedoms that we fight for

Delhi’s Deputy CM fighting it out with da police.

All is not lost yet. The TRAI paper is biased, but they are looking for our comments. And it is important that we send in our comments, if only to put our protest on government records. And they need to be in a quantity large enough to drown out the voices of Airtel and their ilk.

The actual TRAI paper is a hundred pages long and uses convoluted language, and if you don’t want to go through that, you can read the 25 page concise version here – Abridged TRAI consultation paper .But you don’t even have to do that. Your time is precious and you would rather spend it elsewhere. I understand. You can instead send in a simple reply to the said paper telling the government how net neutrality is important.

UPDATE: The deadline is over. Read my response here – Trai response

STEP 1: Send in your responses

To: [email protected]

Deadline: 24th April

Feel free to use parts of this post in your reply. Consider using these points as well:

  • Operators should limit themselves to supplying bandwidth, and not care about what we do with it
  • We don’t owe anything to the operators, just like we didn’t owe the airlines any money. It’s their job to figure out how to make money in the 21st century. If they can’t innovate, they deserve to perish. The government does not stop building bridges just because a ferry operator will lose his livelihood. Everybody needs to adapt. The operators can’t lock this country down in the past century.
  • Operators seeing what we do with our data is a serious privacy concern.
  • Ban positive discrimination by operators. This is what the inventor of the Internet has also said.
  • The US has already taken a strong pro net neutrality stance via their FCC guidelines, and this is our chance to be amongst the first countries to enact  powerful guidelines on this.
  • The paper in question itself states that globally operators stand to make many times more money from data services as compared to the decrease in revenue from calls.
  • India can not afford to have all of it’s new Internet users be restricted to a small portion of the Internet, because of the differential pricing. The new, mostly rural Internet users, have always suffered from a lack of resources, and when we finally have the opportunity to bridge that gap, we can’t censor the Internet in a way that will ensure that these people are kept out of our growth forever. This will destroy our prospects of becoming a knowledge economy.

STEP 2: Spread awareness

Talk about this with your friends. Share this on social media. And then do it again the next day.

Post your reply to the government on Facebook, and ask your friends to do the same.

STEP 3: Get involved

If the cause of net neutrality is close to your heart, and it should be, consider devoting more of your time.

– This is a very comprehensive resource on Reddit on what you can do to help.

– Do some research on net neutrality. A lot of the content you will find will be in the context of the same debate that has been happening in the US for a while, but the issues are universal. Start with this vlogbrothers video and this The Verge’s podcast. And then educate your friends.

– Consider reading the paper or it’s abridged version. And then consider writing a question by question response. You can use this one made by some reddit users as a template (15 pages). Or maybe you can just attach this document along with your shorter response.

Note: Throughout this post Airtel and Flipkart have been used to imply telecom operators and big tech companies that can afford to pay huge sums of money to said operators.

I hope this helped. I will share my own response to the consultation paper here soon. If you have questions/feedback, I am on twitter @atodat

 UPDATE: The deadline is over. Read my response here.

{Image credits: “Sir Tim Berners-Lee” by Paul Clarke ; India Gate ; Manish Sisodia by Dijeshwar Singh}