There has been a hue and cry in the US recently over the Federal Communications Commission’s move to scrap net neutrality rules. And recently, Indians have been cheering telecom regulator TRAI for upholding net neutrality in its new guidelines announced in November 2017.

What is it?

Internet is now the primary medium for information sharing and communication for citizens, Governments and businesses globally. This has become possible because, once you pay a fee to an ISP such as Airtel, Vodafone or Idea for accessing their data services, you are free to access any content on the Web, without any price or content discrimination. This is the underlying principle of net neutrality. In simple terms, it means that users should have neutral access to all lawful content and applications on the internet, regardless of the source, without the government or ISPs influencing your choices through pricing or selective access.

Without specific net neutrality regulations, ISPs can block or slow down internet speeds for select sites, or provide preferential treatment to certain content providers over others. For instance, a telecom operator can enter into an agreement with a company and allow faster access to its website compared to others, or bar the entry of new players in that particular area. But laws upholding net neutrality prevent this.

Why is it important?

Advocates of net neutrality argue that it is the openness of the internet which makes the worldwide web so democratic. With ISPs merely acting as neutral vehicles through which content is ferried, anyone big or small can start a website, distribute content, sell goods or services or offer applications through the internet, even if they don’t have deep pockets or aren’t backed by a big name. It is this level-playing field, they argue, which has fostered so much innovation on the Web and allowed so many small businesses to flourish. If ISPs were given a free pass to control the content, the fear is that they could enter into cosy deals with big businesses to stifle competition, by accepting fees to prioritise some content over others.

But opponents to net neutrality say that without these rules, ISPs will be better able to invest in to improving internet speed, infrastructure and optimising radio spectrum. In 2015, efforts by Facebook to tie up with telecom companies to offer free basic services in India ran into opposition from net neutrality advocates. CEO Mark Zuckerberg then argued that, for people who had no internet access at all, restricted access was better than zero access.

Why should I care?

In India, one often finds the larger players in many sectors calling all the shots on strategy and pricing. In the absence of net neutrality, internet-based businesses may have gone the same way, with larger players across apps, content platforms, services or e-commerce allying to keep out smaller ones.

Hypothetically, think of a Netflix or YouTube being even more dominant than they are now, by being able to tie up with ISPs to speed up access to their own sites! Today, web-based services are at the centre of the start-up revolution.

Had there been no net neutrality at the time when the internet was nascent, services such as Skype may not have taken off at all and players such as Facebook or Instagram may not have displaced older entrants, to capture the market. As a consumer, you may have had to cough up more to access your favourite hotspots on the internet.

The bottomline

Will free internet services mean less freedom on the web?

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