In the last decade, the internet has unlocked possibilities we hadn’t envisioned. There have been innovations around almost every walk of life leveraging the internet. There are newer ways to communicate, to build and maintain a network, to land jobs, to market a business, to reach consumers, to lodge complaints, and what not. Proliferation of such businesses is clearly attributed to the open space that the internet has provided to all its traffic, large or small, with no bias whatsoever based on the creed, race, religion, or even financial status for that matter, that they came from. If that has been the fundamental principle of the internet so far, why tweak it with new rules and regulations that prefers one set of traffic over another?
Since it facilitates everything these days ranging from ordering your groceries until freedom of speech, Internet has come to be a commodity than a luxury. Now that we are psychologically adapted to this lifestyle of the territory, the ISPs can’t direct us as to where to buy groceries from or where to exercise our free speech. Just because ISPs have the control over the internet does in no way give them a right to interfere in what exactly, as a user, I’d like to do on the internet. Just the way my phone provider doesn’t charge me more irrespective of who I call (ignoring the toll-free ones) or what I speak over the call.
There has been enough furore recently forcing us to opine on net neutrality. If you haven’t done it yet, here’s the wiki page to get educated. It suggests that there should be no discrimination of the internet traffic by the ISPs in terms of speed or charges, if they all operate on the same layer. Basically, net neutrality asserts a conducive environment for all businesses to grow in an unbiased manner.
Firstly, what’s an ISP really? It’s like any other business, with an infrastructure and workforce, committed to provision of internet services to a community. They pay to the government to provide these services and need to generate profits to stay in business. But since Internet is the bread and butter for most of the businesses (online or offline) these days, ISPs need to grow with the goal of societal advancement, as opposed to pure benefits. If being net neutral hurts their business and promotes someone else’s if at all, they should adapt to it rather than tweak it because neutrality can’t be compromised. It’s not just about neutrality on the internet; big deals in real market also have to go through anti-trust laws and such so that other businesses don’t suffer.
For example, if Reliance Jio, that has come up with an app, competes with WhatsApp in terms of features, that’s very healthy competition at the same layer. But say Reliance subsidizes their network rates to promote the app for you as an app user, just because they own both the offering and the network, would probably destroy WhatsApp’s business in India.
Any business on the ranks of ISP would have a temptation to make money if a popular business like Facebook is making money. While they do have a point to charge differentially, but just having a government license to operate in a particular space doesn’t provide any right to throttle competition in derived spaces. I’d probably start visiting malls again if my ISP decided which eCommerce platform I should shop from. Just having a preferred partner cannot put the internet users on a slower lane of the un-preferred one.
Lot of arguments over net neutrality relate to a level playing field as everybody has an equal chance for success. There are established corporations that’d like to have preferential data access from the ISPs by paying higher fees. That means the other businesses in the same domain are stuck with slower lanes, irrespective of their business edge. For instance, we have just transitioned from voice to messaging with the rise of WhatsApp and such in the market. Now if Skype had taken over a preferential lane 6 years ago, it’d have been difficult for WhatsApp to build the messaging trend. It had a chance to survive and rise to this stage only because the internet has been neutral to its consumers. And now that WhatsApp is a big brand, should it’s access be priced separately or should it demand faster lanes for its users? Clearly not because that’d kill the next WhatsApp. And just imagine, if every such big giant would take this step, the internet would be a staggering real-estate, literally stepping on others’ toes.
On the other hand, the data being accessed on the Internet too does not recognize what it’s being used for just the way electricity doesn’t recognize if it’s being used for an AC or a 5W bulb. From a common man’s perspective, if data recognizes what it can be used for and what it can’t, only limits its usage. It can be used for voice or messaging or video or whatever that I deem fit.
In fact, a lot of counter-arguments on net neutrality relate to or are similar to the digital entertainment industry. They have bound themselves so hard that it took iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube to really innovate them. Now it shouldn’t be the same Netflix and YouTube behind some protected wall to forbid others from potentially disrupting them.
The bigger giants sure have a right to advance their businesses further just like the budding ones. The intentions probably are good here. They want to reach out to far-flung areas in developing nations. They’d like to see a society where a person doesn’t necessarily have to be sitting in a metro city if to shop on mobile. The market is sure huge. But the changes have to be incremental because real big ones will always be difficult to predict by their definition. These changes also need to be geared towards opening up others’ options than inhibiting them. We can’t be a society which brings in changes that prohibits innovation.
We’ve all heard that every grown-up was a child once. Most of the ideas that have disrupted human race in years have had humble beginnings. Do we really want to put potential opportunities to a disadvantage? The world is full of possibilities today. Let’s not handicap it by enforcing ways that can negatively, and quite unpredictably, impact us. The FCC in America recently won the battle over net neutrality. It’s time those arguments in favor of it foray into laws of all countries.