'Net Neutrality' is all about ensuring the rights of internet users to communicate without being biased. That's it in a nutshell.
--BY DWAIPAYAN REGMI
Ncell has been offering Wikipedia and Twitter for free for a few years now. Recently, they included Facebook too. That sounds 'generous', but it is important to realise that it is against the principle of 'Net Neutrality'.
The term 'Net Neutrality' might appear as something new, but it was coined 13 years ago in 2003 by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University. This principle explicates that the internet should be treated equally by all Internet Service Provider (ISP) and governments, ensuring the same level and frequency of bandwidth. The principle further explains that there should not be any discrimination on the basis of user, content, website platform, and application, type of equipment or mode of communication. Thus, ISPs cannot give preference to particular Over the Top (OTT) services or companies compelling consumers to use them. To be precise, these service providers cannot charge more to NEPSE's app simply because the number of users who installed this app in their smart phone is high. So, 'Net Neutrality' is all about ensuring the rights of internet users to communicate without being biased. That's it in a nutshell.
In 2016 the Dutch Senate passed the revised Net Neutrality Law making an amendment to their Telecommunication Act, compelling ISPs to treat all internet traffic equally and preventing the favouritsm of one internet app over another. None of the Internet content was allowed to be blocked. Dutch internet service providers had allowed free access to certain online services like music streaming as part of monthly cell phone or broad band contracts previously, which was all brought to a halt after this law was imposed.
There are similar cases if we dig deeper into the United States and Singapore too. Reliance came up with a Twitter pack back in 2013 in India. Aircel and Wikipedia too collaborated back in 2013 in India and Whatsapp and Facebook in 2012, to huge success too.
In Nepal also Twitter and Wikipedia has been free on Ncell for more than two years. The question about Net neutrality was raised once Ncell announced Facebook as free. Different rights activists, from different online portals to aware groups, started raising the issue of Net Neutrality, criticising Ncell's move. They said a free Twitter or Facebook was against the principle of 'Net Neutrality'. They argued that people will be compelled to use these social platforms instead of others, which could, for example, adversely impact sagoon.com or 11beep.com. Obviously, if any telecom operator provides one particular app for free, its usage rate will be high, and the others may even come to some terminating point.
The fear is not something unnatural- and obviously there will be criticisms about 'erecting barriers of new entry for entrepreneurs, startups and small business'. There could be questions raised, about Facebook next. What chances of Wikipedia being next? This is perfectly normal. After Zukerberg came up with internet.org's concept, it was initially praised by Indian Prime Minister himself. However, when other elements were mixed in, the concept was dropped. Airtel's 'Airtel Zero' camp was a failure, when it initiated a 'Free Flipkart App', which would directly impact Snapdeal, Amazon or other start ups. Had Reliance and internet.org been successful in providing free data for 38 websites a few years back, India would have been limited to those 38 websites only. That 39th website would have to pay huge sums to be included within Reliance's camp.
And for some start ups, that would be a challenge. The discriminative protocol by IP addresses favouring some private networks would certainly create a biased market. This will create enslavement to a large extent. If Flipkart was free over Airtel Sim, one of the widely preferred telecoms, would it not directly impact Snapdeal? Who would bother spending money over data for checking updates on the online market then? Or, who would switch on their mobile data to compare the price of Flipkart over Amazon? Instead, they would not give a second thought, and would use flipkart itself. Large numbers of Twitter users in Nepal, who use the 'Free Twitter' service barely used to spend any penny to check the updates over Facebook.
Here lie the reasons why Net Neutrality is seen with respect. They should give enough reason why United States and India's Telecom Authorities, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made some strict decisions about Net Neutrality. After all, the Internet's founder Sir Tim Berners Lee had clearly mentioned, “Maintaining net neutrality is critical for the future of the web and future of human rights, innovation and progress.”
Getting down to brass tacks, it was in April 2015 when Zukerberg himself posted a post questioning the issues that were raised throughout the world. He introduced the word "universal connectivity", and answered those issues raised by raising "net neutrality", respecting the term of net neutrality. So, if someone can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all. That was his sole motto, as per his explanations. So, what would go wrong if someone from a remote region of Andhra Pradesh, who could not afford data gains a free Facebook app? Again, there should have been something like aright to information too, in place.
Here in Nepal, one does not get any data discount on using some particular app in comparison to another. The case does not imply for Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia though. They do violate the principle of Net Neutrality of course. But, again there has to be something like "universal connectivity" which should be taken into consideration. Ncell only cannot be linked to violating "Net Neutrality" in the case of Nepal. Those "Facebook Packs" launched by Nepal Telecom equally have to bear the responsibility in this regard. So, being neutral, it is unwise to blame just Ncell for violating Net Neutrality. Startups might not have been affected through these moves so far either. All of them can join Facebook, or Twitter and enjoy them equally.
Because Net Neutrality simply talks about either being completely free, or completely chargeable, people have been discussing its impact over sagoon.com or other domestic social media sites, which could be hampered. But in reality, how many of us actually use Sagoon.com? Ncell’s free apps allows that student in some remote region to use Wikipedia for free, or someone who can't pay for data can use Facebook and Twitter to stay connected to the world and get updates for free. Is that not a bad thing?
So, is there nothing to fear? That is the question. There actually are things to fear though. Nepalese telecom operators might collaborate with some news portal in the upcoming days, making the portal free of cost. It may then be the time to discuss Net Neutrality again because other news portals might go down all of sudden. That would impact other startup portals too. Similar can be the case with online purchasing sites, or mobile applications. This would be the time when Nepalis should actually speak up about the issue.
Similar things took place in India as well. Initially it was only limited to Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, Whatsapp until 2013. Later, when it expanded to Flipkart, the issue flared up. Nepal could face something similar in the near future, and then it would be the time to argue and protest- not right now.
The principle coined 13 years ago is a cut and dry situation. Sometimes, it may not be possible to cut corners. If the case is about "Net Neutrality", then Pirate Bay or those torrent sites which are blocked in several parts of the world should be open. Copyright may come under a different principle, but it certainly collides with this one of Net Neutrality. How can someone say Zukerberg was wrong over his question of universal connectivity?
Until now, it's all been limited to twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia. They may have plans to expand further and may attempt to create a biased market. It would then be appropriate to raise concerns. There might not be anything wrong with letting them fit like a glove for now.
Regmi is a freelance writer and a blogger. He is currently involved as a part time faculty member at Kathford International College, Kathmandu and can be reached at [email protected]