The very first attempt to share a message across two connected computers took place on an early September day in the year 1969. Scientists from UCLA decided to send a message to their colleagues at Stanford. The intent was to send across a message beginning with the word ‘login’. But after the first two letters were sent and received, the system crashed. The message sent might have been incomplete but the internet had just been born. And today, after countless advancements and developments in connecting millions over millions of computers together, the internet today has become the friendly helpful giant that we know and use almost daily.
One of the core premise necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the internet as an equal platform for everybody is that no data flowing through the network should be “preferred” over any other data. In other words, the internet, which is basically the flow of data within a network of connected computers, should remain neutral to the data flowing through it. This ensures that internet remains a free and neutral platform for sharing opinions, ideas and content; all data within the internet are equally accessible by all users. But this concept of the internet remaining neutral, or “Net Neutrality”, is greatly under attack.
Ironically enough the shift has begun in the country where the first message was sent all those years ago. The US Federal Communications Commission or FCC recently voted to repeal their rules aimed at ensuring a free and open Internet. Passed under the earlier Obama administration, these rules were considered pivotal in upholding Net Neutrality within a county which sets a precedent for many within the developing world.
The argument for the repeal was that Net Neutrality aims to solve a problem that does not exist. "The Internet wasn't broken in 2015. We weren't living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the Internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success," FCC Chairman AjitPai said even as the argument and the subsequent vote sent chilling waves across the length and breadth of the world wide web. Even in India.
Passed in 2015 the earlier set of Net Neutrality rules prevented Internet service providers or ISPs from blocking, degrading or slowing Internet traffic selectively. They also prevented ISPs from getting into any tie-ups that led to discriminatory treatment of Internet traffic. This ensured all kind of content and websites enjoyed equal access and speed. The user would be able to access all websites regardless of where they came from, or what information they were trying to access. It ensured that internet remained a resource that was neutrally available to everyone.
From a business point of view, it meant that companies could not “buy their way in” to consumers. The rules ensured that even companies with deep pockets and vast resources would face competition from small startups, and that consumers would have the final say in what product they deem better. This way no company could suppress the growth of its startup competitors. This is what any rational market is based on; competitors irrespective of size and resources compete by providing their best products and services while consumers choose the best offering.
This was the system that’s allowed innovation and development to thrive; a system that allowed an Orkut to lead to Facebook, a Yahoo to lead to a Google. But not anymore. At least in the US, Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications can provide preferential treatment to websites and companies which are ready to pay and in return get a significant portion of their users screen time. ISPs have the power over what content consumers can access now within the US.
Although as a resolution this repeal of earlier laws affects only states within the US, the impact of it would surely be felt across many areas of the world, chiefly among countries like India which hosts one of the largest pools of software and IT talent. Not immediately though as the internet is fairly more porous and flexible than usual markets, but eventually.
As Siddharth Pai in his post on Mint shares, “In essence, a trade barrier could be thrown up by requiring US internet service carriers to discriminate in favour of homegrown outsourcers while keeping the non-US outsourcers from India, Latin America, and Eastern Europe out.” This is line with the rising protectionist policies within the country. He adds,” Under the FCC’s proposed rules, an Internet service provider could slow down connections and traffic to non-domestic IT services firms, or even block them completely.” It would be crucial to note how many of the up and coming tech companies react to the repeal as it might soon set a precedent for other countries.
India’s stance on net neutrality
The other worrying aspect of the move to repeal its older laws that safeguarded Net Neutrality it sets a bad precedent for other developing countries that still depend on a free and equal internet. It is necessary that regulators in other countries don't fall prey to something similar.
In India, the central regulatory body for such matters, TRAI, has stood firm on its stand to defend net neutrality. Only last month it publicly declared it did not favour any discrimination on the Internet. In its detailed recommendations on Net Neutrality in India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asserted that there should be no intrusion of equal Internet access to everyone. TRAI, in its recommendations, duly noted that Internet is an open platform and as such Internet services must be non-discriminatory.
In its report, it recognized that internet had emerged as “an important resource for innovation and economic growth and as a medium to support information exchange” and that “the future growth of telecom sector and of other access networks is contingent upon innovation in and growth of the Internet infrastructure and the many applications, content, and services linked to it.”
The recommendations come as a response to the Department of Telecommunications request and clearly outlines the importance of safeguarding the internet. The report mentions how operators must be barred from blocking, degrading or slowing Internet traffic selectively. Additionally, they must also refrain from getting into any tie-ups that lead to discriminatory treatment of internet traffic.
This is good news as it helps domestic talent tap into their creative resources and contribute to the growing economy. It should help many of the smaller start-ups seeking to find their place in the sun. The internet today is the backbone of many of the tech-led advancements across the globe, including India. it remaining free and equal is vital for its successful utilization.