After the US decided to scrap open and free internet policies last week, the world is feeling the heat.
Net Neutrality, as the name implies, is a framework for the internet which is based on the accessible and free use of the internet.
Former US President Barack Obama had a supportive stance towards Net Neutrality from the onset of his presidential campaign in 2007, pledging support for the framework if he was elected president.
“I am a strong supporter of net neutrality … What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites … And that I think destroys one of the best things about the Internet—which is that there is this incredible equality there.” -Barack Obama, October 29 2007
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is an independent body established by the United States to govern communications by radio, television, cable, and satellite.
In May of 2010, the FCC introduced strong net neutrality protections that said internet service providers could not block websites or impose limits on users.
The FCC has since then changed its outlook on the internet, moving to favor a monopolized version which would benefit corporates over the individual user, threatening to undo all of President Obama’s legislatures on the topic.
Let’s dive into how Net Neutrality works.
Think of the Internet as a highway. Vehicles on this highway (content providers e.g Google, Facebook, Reddit, Netflix etc.) cannot pay more to take a special, faster lane on this highway. The toll booths (Internet providers like Verizon, Airtel, Vodafone, Hathway etc.) are supposed to treat all content on the internet neutrally, which means that every vehicle has the same access to this highway. This way, internet providers cannot speed up certain services based on which ones they favor.
This is the basis of the ‘neutral’ net, i.e the internet we all know and love. The Obama administration defined Net Neutrality like this:
More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as “net neutrality” — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.
If Net Neutrality ends, some companies/content providers are going to be stuck in the slow lane, while bigger corporates buy out some portions of this highway for themselves, forcing smaller vehicles to go slower.
The FCC voted against the neutral net, which essentially means that some websites/services will be faster than others, and in many cases, you will be expected to pay a premium in addition to your internet pack to access the full capabilities of these websites or services.
The chairperson of the FCC Ajit Pai has in a short span of time, become one of the most hated people in America, and to some extent, the world. Pai’s academic and professional history has come into great scrutinization over the past few months, with Fortune magazine writing, “Ajit Pai is drunk on free-market economics. There’s no other way to explain his decision as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission’s to tear up the nation’s net neutrality rules for no good reason.”
“Contrary to the view of some critics, Pai is not corrupt. Yes, he was a lawyer for Verizon, a fierce opponent of net neutrality, but his decision to scrap the rules was not motivated by a desire to win favor with his former bosses in the telecom industry.
Instead, the problem is that Pai is a zealot. Pai’s speeches and tweets, described below, reveal how he’s in thrall to an ideology that places economic principles over people.” – Fortune.com
With the FCC voting 3-2, now the only thing that can be done to reverse this repeal of Net Neutrality in the US is via the court. The Congress and corporates can file a lawsuit against the FCC, but these processes are renown for taking an agonizingly long period to actually reach a decision.
How the world reacted
Obviously, such an invasive and radical change was not welcomed well. Tech giants (Amazon, Reddit, Kickstarter, Facebook and a number of other Internet heavyweights) came out with great criticisms, many choosing to unite on a “day of action”, a protest designed to oppose the FCC. You can read more about the day of action in the sources below.
Ajit Pai, appointed by Donald Trump, argued that an unregulated internet would boost innovation and help the economy. Entrepreneurs disagree.
Airbnb’s CEO tweeted:
Here’s what Amazon’s Chief Technology Officer wrote:
“On July 12, the companies and organizations will hold a digital rally where they will change their websites to raise awareness about net neutrality rules, which prevents Internet providers from blocking, slowing, or from charging websites special fees to get their content in front of users. The concept centers on the fact that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by broadband providers.” – Inc.com
“Without strong net neutrality rules, though, I’m concerned that the cable and wireless companies that control internet access will have outsized power to pick winners and losers in the market,” Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, which is participating in the digital rally, said in a statement.
What this means for India
Relax. We’re not going to be directly affected. Yet.
In what comes as a surprising move, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister holding the Law and Justice and Electronics and Information Technology portfolio has said in a comment, “It was for the US to decide its stand on net neutrality but our stand from day one is very clear – right of non-discriminatory access to internet is not negotiable”.
“Internet must be available to all. From day one that I’ve been handling the portfolio of communications too, I have always said in the parliament: the right of access to the internet is not negotiable. I don’t want to go into the debate of net neutrality that is for America to decide… I have been very clear, our government has been very clear.”
This is a statement and moment of great importance because it shows India’s steadfast commitment to its democratic ideals.
His statement isn’t just plain talk; the government actually denied Facebook’s Free Basics program, which intended to bring free access to some websites while leaving out others. This was actually going to be implemented in villages and towns with no internet, and Facebook saw its own interests in providing these services.
India’s equivalent of the FCC, the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) published an order in February last year on discriminatory pricing over internet access which led to a ban of platforms like Free Basics and Airtel Zero.
This is a great thing for the users in India, with the government ready to deny big players like Facebook if it means jeopardizing the end user.
Many of the things that will come from the Net Neutrality ban have been happening in China for many years – slowing down internet traffic, fast lanes for certain kinds of content, the blocking of websites.
China has been there, done that, and it still enforces a policy where users are forced to use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) in order to access websites like Google and Facebook. The Chinese government offers its own alternatives to these sites.
This springs an interesting debate. If other countries still haven’t decided their stand on the matter of the Internet and look to the giants of the topic such as India or China, they will be faced with two very different outlooks.
If the U.S. won’t stand up for the free and open internet, it’s important that other countries do so.