The importance of net neutrality

Should the Internet be touched? That’s one way to summarise the twenty questions the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has asked the public in a recent consultation paper. Most questions pertain to whether the hitherto unregulated over-the-top services, typically apps such as Skype and Facebook that ride on telecom networks, need regulation. Views have also been sought regarding net neutrality, the principle of data equality that has over the years ensured the Internet remained a level playing ground. TRAI will eventually take a call on whether India has to change its approach to Internet regulation. But isn’t the Internet perfect the way it is? Apparently not. At least that is what telecom companies believe. After spending billions of dollars in setting up infrastructure and bringing themselves under regulatory scrutiny, telecom companies can’t bear the fact that numerous applications ride on their networks for free. Some of the apps have millions of subscribers and command valuations of billions of dollars. Some like Skype and WhatsApp compete head on with the voice and messaging offerings of the telcos, who to be fair also need money to invest in building networks. Still, what’s not to be forgotten is that the telcos do benefit from the apps that piggyback on them. More app usage means more data consumed and more money inflow. Whether telcos are really aggrieved or not is debatable.

Even if they are, violating the core principle governing the Internet will be a disastrous way of delivering justice. For, the licence to violate net neutrality will mean telcos could now be in a position to ensure some sites are served faster than others. It could also mean it becomes costlier to use certain applications. Most importantly, it could endanger the very feature of the Internet that has over the years made it possible for countless start-ups, right from the Googles to the Flipkarts, to dream and act big. It’s well acknowledged that the Internet has disrupted the world of business like no other technology has in recent decades. It has helped start-ups with hardly any capital and clout to still make a mark. So by rejecting net neutrality, which will enable telcos to play the gatekeeper to a valuable resource, we will be shutting the door on the entrepreneurial aspirations of millions. That’s because the only way for them to compete with the big moneyed Internet players would be to match their spends to make the Internet work for them. The absence of net neutrality will definitely benefit the telcos while at the same time harming the market by unleashing monopolistic tendencies. Telcos don’t want to be dumb pipes that agnostically transfer data. The cost of their ambition will be the loss of the Internet’s openness.