Surfers can view any content they like, content providers can publish whatever they want, but thanks to net neutrality, Internet Service Providers or ISPs cannot use any discretion
A couple of month back, Airtel, India’s largest mobile operator, excluded Voice over Internet Protocol -VoIP services like Skype and Viber from their 2G/3G internet plans. This meant that the data usage for skype or viber calls will be charged outside the plan, costing subscribers more. Airtel later announced separate VoIP packages at a slightly higher cost than the normal data packages for using such services. This move to segregate internet services by Airtel came under a lot of criticism. People argued that, Airtel, with this discriminative pricing move, had violated “Net-Neutrality”. The outrage was so big that Airtel had to retract the move.
I will come back to the idea of Net-Neutrality in a bit. But it is interesting that the critics bring in this argument only now when the customer is asked to pay a bit more. If they were really true to the principle of Net-Neutrality --thereby opposed to discriminative pricing-- they would have opposed the low cost exclusive plans Airtel and other operators have been offering and have been benefiting the customers for services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Also, one of the allegations is that, since VoIP services are in direct competition with their telephony service, Airtel wants to discriminate them. In this case, how do you explain a low cost plan that the operator offers for accessing Whatsapp service, which directly dents the SMS service that it provides? This is plain scaremongering to get people on to their side in the net-neutrality argument without making any effort to objectively debate it.
Though the word “net-neutrality” was coined back in 2003, we in India have come to know about it very recently. A few months back, former Minister of State for Information Technology, Milind Deora, opened up the debate by penning a contradictory piece favouring net-neutrality. He titled it “The customer is kingkong”, and went on to contradict it by arguing that customer should be protected by regulatory bodies. There is another piece by Pranesh Prakash favouring net-neutrality, who asks “Whose internet is it anyway?” but fails to answer it in his article.
What is Net-Neutrality?
Before answering the question, let us understand how the internet functions.
Internet makes it possible to connect to any computer on the network to request/ send data immediately. What makes this internet communication robust and different from telephone communication is that the latter needs a dedicated link between source and destination for the data exchange to happen. On the internet, data can traverse through different available routes, like shown in the figure below. One of the possible routes is highlighted in red.
This breakthrough in data communication was what made the internet a reality.
How does this all work? Each connected computer has an internet protocol (IP) address, which is its unique identification on the internet. The data to be sent is divided into small data packets; along with the data, each packet carries the information of the IP addresses of sender and receiver. Finally, for data transmission to happen, i.e. for computers to understand each other, there are some rules/ protocols that they should follow. The transmission control protocol/IP or TCP/IP is one such popular protocol to send data. When I request a picture from Facebook, its server divides the picture into small data packets, includes my IP in each packet as the destination address, and transmits it using the TCP/IP protocol. These packets travel over the network, take available routes to reach the destination IP. Not all these packets need take the same route nor they need to be received in a particular order. Once all the packets are received, my computer assembles them based on the sequence number they carry and displays the picture. Yes, all this in a matter of seconds, if not milliseconds.
But who is helping me connect with these content providers like Facebook, Google and YouTube? The Internet Service Providers (ISPs). While the content providers build big web-servers to make their content available, it is ISPs with their routers, computers, cabling network, wireless transmitters, and other equipment, which carry the data packets to our home machines as and when requested. Therefore, broadly, there are three players in the internet business: web content providers, ISPs and web surfers. ISPs charge both the content providers and web surfers for using their channels.
The principle of net neutrality is that, ISPs, which facilitate content providers and surfers, should treat all data packets equally without any discrimination. This in effect means:
ISPs cannot block any content.
They cannot have different data charges for different content.
They cannot prioritize content by using fast/ slow lanes.
They cannot have any understanding with content providers to make latter’s content available faster or at cheaper rates.
The issue of net neutrality came into the limelight in 2008 when Comcast, one of the leading ISPs in the US, was accused of blocking peer-to-peer (BitTorrent) data transfer. People generally use this service to download heavy files like movies. As this high bandwidth transfer was causing congestion in the network, thereby inconveniencing majority of its users, Comcast decided to block it. This was judged illegal and they were forced to unblock it.
It is estimated that almost three billion people across the world are connected to the internet today. However, it did not happen overnight nor it was something planned. Private individuals and companies, in their own self-interest, went out there and built these vast networks. No one told them to be content providers or ISPs, they chose what they could do best and spontaneously aligned to produce this wonderful thing called the internet. The whole thing rests on only one principle: voluntary association, made possible by clearly defined property rights. To the question of who owns the internet - nobody owns it in toto, but everyone who has invested in it owns his piece.
Net neutrality’s cruelty is in discriminating ISPs. Surfers can view any content they like, content providers can publish whatever they want, but ISPs cannot use any discretion. This is both immoral and foolish. ISPs, with the vast amount of infrastructure they have invested in, accommodate millions of new users every day and manage an unimaginable amount of content that is generated at every click. They also compete with each other in delivering better services to their customers. From dial up internet days to what we are experiencing today, the improvement is unbelievable. Yet we want to dictate how they should conduct their business?
Forget ISPs discriminating them, data packets themselves are not of singular nature; they have different needs. For example, when you request an image, you do not want any loss of information (packets); even if a packet is a delayed, we can wait for it. So the nature of the protocol we use here is a slightly heavy, but a highly reliable protocol called TCP.
But voice communication or VoIP is real-time, accuracy of data comes second compared to its speed. Therefore, we use a lightweight protocol called User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Every delayed packet worsens the quality of voice (as there is no point in adding the delayed packet back). So any ISP, which wants to improve the quality of its VoIP service should put it on fast lane, in other words, prioritize UDP requests. When you do that, you would want to charge accordingly. Airtel is probably trying to do this. Also, when we are talking about wireless internet (mobile internet service providers), for optimum utilisation, it is even more important to prioritize data packets as spectrum is a scarce resource.
But then we in India hate lane system; love the disorganised traffic and congestions. We like to have bicycles, two-wheelers, four-wheelers, light-weight/ heavy-weight vehicles, ambulances, pedestrians, cows/ buffaloes/ goats all on the same road so that we can tweet our displeasure about traffic jams on Twitter. Therefore, it is only natural that we would want to continue that on the internet too. But with net-neutrality, soon we might have to wait as much time as you wait at the traffic signal to post our tweets.
Consider this. Netflix, a popular portal for streaming movies in the US, takes up to 35% of the total internet bandwidth in that country. If you add YouTube to it, they consume half of the internet. This leads to congestion in the network making it difficult for the users to access other lightweight content. Net-neutrality ties the hands of the ISPs; they cannot put these high-bandwidth consuming services in a different lane and charge them accordingly, for it amounts to discrimination. While in the real world we can build ring roads around the perimeter of the city to prevent truck traffic from entering the city roads, we will not let this discrimination happen on the internet. Because - ‘net neutrality’.
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