March 2015. India was publically discussing an issue which has already taken or will take center-stage in every country of the world. The questions were of crucial importance: How much freedom does the end-user have about using the Internet their own way? If we can create access-based restrictions on the Internet, where and how do we draw them? And most importantly, just how open do we want the Internet to be? After months of passionate advocacy by a variety opinion makers, the words ‘net neutrality’ started seeping in the public discourse, which led to demonstrations, petitions, discussions, prime-time arguments, and charged-up editorials. Thankfully, sensing the public opinion and accounting for the fact that a lack of regulation would distort the ‘users’ Internet experience’, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) passed guidelines in February 2016 protecting the freedom of access on Internet, and in effect, making Mark Zuckerberg a very unhappy man, by halting his ambitious ‘Free Basics’ project in India.
The current picture
Cut to 2017, it’s almost as if the history is repeating itself. The discourse is very much heated, the protests feverish, and by one estimate, over 20 million comments have reached the government regarding net neutrality. But this battle is based in a country where one might least expect it to: United States of America. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees telecommunications and Internet-based policy, passed the net neutrality regulations back in 2015. While anti-net neutrality parties continued lobbying against it, their campaign got a new fillip when Ajit Pai, serving as an FCC commissioner since 2012, was elevated to the apex position in the Donald Trump administration. A conservative, Pai was famous for opposing several reforms during his preceding tenure, including the above-mentioned regulations of 2015, and has been extremely vocal since the beginning of this year about his intentions to undo them. On December 14, the FCC approved Pai’s proposal to repeal the net neutrality regulations.
For the uninitiated, under net neutrality policies, unrestricted access is enabled to all corners and contents of the Internet, irrespective of its type, origin, packaging or who is accessing them. Without these protections, there is nothing stopping the network carriers from implementing clever and creative strategies with regard to access, pricing and speed; this lack of regulation will, in practice, result in a reduced customer choice and create an uneven playground for businesses and content creators.
Mr. Pai is committed to allowing the market forces of demand and supply to shape this industry and many who share his views believe that net neutrality regulations cripple innovation, stifle competition and discourage companies from investing in newer technology. Pai has been at the receiving end of criticism throughout the year for his views and policies from various sectors (even from tech-biggies like Alphabet and Facebook); it doesn’t help that he has been a lawyer at Verizon, a network carrier in the USA, which is likely to benefit drastically from the policy change.
A Paradigm Change
Now that the protective regulations have been dismantled, one can expect network carriers offering opportunistic charging of bouquets of services (messaging, videos, social media etc.) to users and a rush by businesses and content providers (those who can afford it) to keep major network carriers happy (to ensure uninterrupted access to their customers). This carefully crafted platform, which will be reduced to a ghost of the open and free-natured Internet as we know it, will throttle customer choice and small businesses that offer unique content will bear the maximum brunt. However, that is not all that will change.
In the absence of a fast, free and fair Internet, almost all data-intensive services are bound to suffer the most. This will be particularly problematic considering the app-first culture that has fostered in the last few years, which relies heavily on Cloud storage. Companies could see the performance of their applications – both internal and external – being impacted, simply because the Cloud company that hosts the apps and stores all the information isn’t a part of the ‘fast-lane’ or is a business rival to one of the network carriers. This is of immense importance in the world of Big Data and Analytics, which operates by collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of data simultaneously. The lifting of regulations will, in practice, change how companies in the USA or those who have a customer base in the country interact with the most important infrastructural tool required to survive today: the Internet.
Examples, like in China, show that such restrictions can also be used to favor local businesses. Or like UAE can allow for providers to charge consumers based on the type of usage, thus violating a fundamental Internet freedom of treating all types of data equally.
TRAI in India, has, however, recently reaffirmed its commitment towards a free and fair Internet space, with R.S. Sharma, TRAI’s Chairman stating, “TRAI opposes ‘discriminatory treatment’ of Internet traffic... The Internet today is a great platform for innovation, startups, banking, government applications such as health, telemedicine, education and agriculture. From an Indian context, India has a huge population, huge things are going to happen on the Internet. It is important that this platform is kept open and free and not cannibalized.”
The impact on business
The step might as well re-write the rules for domains that have evolved and progressed rapidly in the last few years in the corporate world: enterprise mobility management, gig economy, remote working, internal and external communications strategies etc. Employees and employers could both see barriers in their ability to access and post information – for example users might have to pay an extra fee to access websites containing otherwise free job postings, or recruiters might have to shell out more to actually reach applicants in speedily, and those who refuse to do so, will be on an unequal footing, despite their best efforts. These interruptions might force companies to completely change their business models in order to survive in an altered reality wherein reaching users, consumers and customers or even their own employees come with a price – economic or otherwise.
While it is impossible to predict exactly how the scenario will play out, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where users and content providers with limited access to each other can prosper, grow and innovate. Jobseekers might lose control and freedom over what websites they can access, and job portals providing niche information will have to find new ways to continually offer their services and prove their value. Even services and platforms that are meant for internal company purposes – say an application for employee feedback, or a website for training and development – might have to be redesigned to ensure that they use minimal bandwidth, reduce the number of times they ping the server and increase local caching. Organizations that work in the personnel training, employee engagement, job opportunities and information domain (or organizations that are working towards the same end for their own employees) will have to rethink the ways in which they create products and services by factoring in the new importance accorded to cost of access, along with redesigning the traditional elements like user interface, ease of design, engagement, and retention.
It would be safe to assume that when a country as important as the USA undertakes such a sweeping change in its way of functioning, ripples will be felt all over the world. Already, experts are anticipating disruptions. Siddharth Pai, a technology consultant, opines that creating such barriers could very well give rise to trade barriers, with the intent of encouraging local players and favor businesses in the USA. He goes on to suggest that in such a scenario, much like China, a closed and virtually impenetrable system might be established in the USA, fortified and loosened at the behest of the government, and adversely affecting organizations all over the world, including India, which relies on clients outsourcing work from the country. Fallouts in the recruitment and HR Technology space could be a massive setback to the innovation that small and medium players have ushered over the last few years, as their services might have to operate with limited access to users or no access at all. Smaller organizations, job boards and recruitment channels that might not be able to ensure a speedy access to their users (unlike big and established players like LinkedIn) are bound to suffer. These developments might as well dictate global trends in the way we work in the coming years.
The repealing of net neutrality laws in the USA might as well be a defining moment in the course of the Internet history, and along with it, how we interact and deal with the USA and how work is done in the country. A legal battle can be expected as consumer advocates and content creators are unlikely to accept these new regulations without a fight. Nonetheless, equitable access to the Internet remains one of the most contested issues of the century – and rightly so, for Internet connectivity has become an integral part of how we work, live, communicate and innovate, hence, attempts to alter its open fundamental nature will evoke resistance and protest. One can assume that the developments in the USA are likely to reignite the global discourse on the issue, which seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.