Top 7 facts you need to know about Net Neutrality

By TV Ramachandran

Today there are many vibrant discussions and shrill arguments around the subject of Net Neutrality and associated matters. Unfortunately, many of the true facts are getting submerged in the noise and much misinformation has swamped the debating forum. The seven top most facts that need to be known about Net Neutrality and the associated concepts are detailed below:-

Myth 1: There is an agreed or consensus global definition of Net Neutrality.

Fact 1: The truth is that, actually, there is no single view. Net Neutrality is a complex and multi- faceted subject and there have been debates and discussions about it for many years now. Even today, there is no single common view on the subject. It involves complex issues at the technical, economic and policy levels and one needs to take a holistic and practical view depending on the country, its circumstances and the desired priority goals.

As noted even by the European Parliament’s Policy Department’s study for the IMCO Committee in 2014, there are many different definitions of Network Neutrality. The Department goes on to observe that “the definitional differences are not a mere matter of semantics. There is substantial tension if not outright incompatibility among them”…Of the various definitions quoted, that from the US FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order of “absence of unreasonable discrimination on the part of the network operators in transmitting internet traffic” appears to be a practical, reasonable and generally favored definition.

Myth 2: The US has a clear and definitive position on Net Neutrality. Many other Western countries are also well aligned on the subject.

Fact 2: Incorrect. Net Neutrality has not been settled in the US definitively or unambiguously. Even when the regulations were passed recently in the FCC (The US Regulator of Communication Services), it was through a 3-2 vote, indicating a deep split in the thinking. Moreover, the FCC decision itself has subsequently been challenged in the courts by the Telecom industry.

As stated earlier, there are multiple definitions of Network Neutrality on both sides of the Atlantic. There are differing views within Europe from country to country. There is much debate and discussions going on there and there is no single final view yet evolved. The stages of regulation and legislation on this subject are considerably different from country to country.

Myth 3: A Western type of Net Neutrality is required for India to advance in the ICT field.

Fact 3: India’s ICT development status as well as socio-demographics are uniquely different to the developed and western nations. Improved mobile internet access and usage are extremely critical for us to improve our ICT development status and achieve digital inclusion. Hence, we definitely need a customized version of Net Neutrality to secure the maximum welfare of our citizens keeping in mind our current status and constraints.

Myth 4: Net Neutrality was an inbuilt feature of the Internet right from its inception.

Fact 4: Not true. As per technological experts, “the specification for the Internet’s communications protocol, TCP /IP was never dumb or neutral. IP packets, the data “envelopes” that carry pieces of actual content, reserve space in those “envelopes” that helps to identify how network devises should process those packets. Prepared for a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) project, the original TCP /IP standards “ treated high precedence traffic as more important than other traffic” and defined informational flags for prioritization of packets travelling on TCP/IP networks. *The standards document outlines the process for automatically enforcing one of several separately defined policies including minimizing delays in transmission, maximizing through put and maximizing reliability.

The Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF standards) deals with smart traffic filtering and prioritization systems. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) another key Internet standards body describes the standard Type of Service values as ways to enforce different standards for different types of content.

It is reported that in January 2007, Robert Kahn, popularly known as the “Father of Internet” strongly opposed the legislation over Net Neutrality calling it a “slogan.” More recently, Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of M.I.I Media Labs, opined that “ the term Net Neutrality has a little bit of a pejorative ring. How would you want something not to be neutral …But the truth is all bits are not created equal …And so to argue that they are all equal is crazy…What I can assure you on the topic is those of us who were there in the beginning of the Internet never imagined that Netflix would represent 40% of it on Sunday afternoons. It was just off the chart.”
In essence, the fact is that the Internet was technologically designed for non-neutrality.

Myth 5: Traffic management by network operators is harmful to consumers. All traffic should be treated equally.

Fact 5: Traffic management is actually a tool for delivering consumers the required right Quality of Service and therefore it enhances consumer welfare and does not harm end-users.
It is obvious that e-mail or browsing require far less speed and bandwidth than videoconferencing or You Tube or Netflix. Hence when resources (spectrum) are limited, providing all types of users the same QoS would in effect mean lowering the over-all average speed and thus slowing down of the internet. It would also mean subsidizing of the heavy users (of You Tube, etc) by the lower end light users. This would obviously be gross injustice.

Myth 6: A Zero Rating Platform or an Internet.Org are violations of Net Neutrality principles and they harm consumer’s interests.

Fact 6: Zero platform or Internet.Org are completely different concepts as compared to Net Neutrality. No sites or applications are blocked or throttled in these two innovative products. The general consumer continues to have unrestricted access to all lawful applications and sites at normal data charges and with normal QoS. It is only the applications which exercise the choice of using the Zero platform or Internet.Org which will be available to users who go through the platform without their having to pay for data charges. These applications would be having a suitable commercial arrangement voluntarily set up with a network operator.

The above is of clear benefit for providing access and increased usage to the unconnected and the low-end internet users. Inarguable that this is extremely desirable for India to improve the digital inclusion and bridge the digital divide.
As rightly pointed out by Mark Zuckerberg, both Net Neutrality and concepts like Internet.Org and Zero platform can coexist in a healthy manner.

Myth 7: A product like Zero rating harms or stifles new innovations.

Fact 7: Reality is actually the other way round – Zero rating is positively beneficial to new and fledgling innovators who have limited resources for promoting or marketing their new products against established equivalents from the big incumbent content providers.

This can be illustrated by an example. All are familiar with the established product Drop Box for the storage of one’s files. If a new entrepreneur-NewCo were to come up with an excellent competing product, he might be greatly limited in a price sensitive market like ours for getting his fair share of the market.

This is because, for eg, if I am a low end connected user with affordability of just 6 GB pack for a month, even though I wish to switch from Dropbox to NewCo, I would not be able to do it because the steps of downloading all my files from Drop box and uploading into New Co would breach my entitlement of 6 GB. However, if NewCo were to be on a Zero Platform, then I would incur no data consumption for uploading my files into NewCo. Thus I would easily switch from Dropbox to NewCo.

Apart from the above type of benefit, the small content provider with the new product also has a great advantage of having the entire subscriber base of the operator say about 200 million for eg -available to him at minimum cost.

TV Ramachandran
The author is former Director-General, COAI
(Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author)

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