Amid the ongoing debate over net neutrality, Vishal Misra, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, said while all telecom service providers and companies such as Facebook say they support Net Neutrality, the major issue is that everyone has their own definition of it.
Speaking to The Hindu on the subject, Prof. Misra said, “The big problem is the term net neutrality is very confusing. Everyone seems to have their own definition. People talk to telecom companies who say we are for net neutrality. But what they implement may not be what other people call net neutrality. There is whole activist movement in India who have their version of Net Neutrality.”
He added players such as Facebook may have two definition of Net Neutrality, one which applies for Whatsapp — the instant messaging app owned by the social networking site, and another for its internet.org initiative that has been criticised for violating the principles of Net Neutrality.
Prof. Misra was in Delhi to present his views on Net Neutrality to the Parliamentary Standing Committee looking into the issue. The Committee has already in previous meeting taken note of views of the operators and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
He pointed out that one of his colleagues at the Columbia University, Tim Wu, coined the term Net Neutrality. “Unfortunately, the definition of Net Neutrality is not very crisp and precise. And people conflate issues when they talk about network neutrality. People often say the principle of network neutrality is that all packets should be treated equally. The internet has never been neutral in that sense. Packets are not treated equally and that is fine.” A packet is the unit of data that is routed between origin and destination on the Internet.
Asked about principles of Net Neutrality, Prof. Misra said, “Internet service providers or telecom firms should not provide competitive advantage to certain individual apps or services based on either quality of service or pricing. That is what net neutrality is.”
In Net Neutrality, differentiation is fine, discrimination is not. You can differentiate based on what kind of content it is, but if you discriminate based on who the content is for that is not fine.”
On operators’ arguments that they have investment huge amounts in infrastructure and will continue to do so, Prof. Misra said, “In Airtel’s latest earnings, we have seen their data revenues surge. Worldwide there is acceptance of the notion that cellular business is no longer a voice business but it is data business. Operators should focus on that. They are free to offer their services like messaging or streaming but it should not be zero rated.”
While the debate has been going on at the global level for a long time, in India it was triggered when country’s largest operator Airtel in December 2014 announced plans to start charging customers for VoIP services, such as Skype and Viber. The debate gained national momentum when telecom regulator TRAI, in a first step towards making regulating the issue, came out with consultation paper inviting user comments on the subject.
In addition, Airtel announced another initiative Airtel Zero, an open marketing platform that allows customers to access a variety of mobile applications for free, with the data charges being paid by start-ups and large companies. This too, activists said, violates the principle of Net Neutrality.
Recently, a Telecom Department panel in its report advocated that no licensing restrictions be imposed on applications providing messaging and international calling services over the Internet. However, it recommended that apps offering domestic calling be brought under same regulatory framework as that for operators.