Should I save the internet ?

Saving “anything” sounds like superhero stuff, saving the internet sounds like saving the planet, but what is it really about. In India, this movement is underway currently following in the footsteps of similar movements in the US since the Government has asked for a public response on the issue prior to its stand on the matter.

Net neutrality in a nutshell

Of late, net neutrality has become a key word in the internet activist community. On a very high level, think about the internet as a collection of wires connecting different computers through which data packets flow around, then net neutrality means that all data packets irrespective of what they represent (an image/video/a chat message/…) and all computers which are receiving and sending these data packets will be treated equally i.e., there will be no discrimination based on the nature of the data packet and the sending and receiving computer for transferring the data packets. This is the broad sweeping definition of net neutrality. It owes its origin to the origin of telegraph where a similar interpretation required that all messages irrespective of its content and the sender/receiver must be treated equally.

Do I really want net neutrality ?

That depends on your ideals. In an ideal setting if you had wires which could carry an infinite (any amount) of data packets at the same time, then ideal net neutrality would be a goal worth settling for. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, the wires can only carry a fixed number of data packets at the same time and worse a lot of senders and receivers share the same wires. As a result, the data packets need to be prioritized. As a result data packets are prioritized (image/video over text for webpages) and senders and receivers are prioritized too (people with a higher bandwidth plan need to pay more). It could be argued that this violation of idealized net neutrality is a pragmatic solution to an infrastructure problem.

What is the problem then ?

The real problem lies in discriminating the nature of the data in order to make money. If you consume the same amount of data, whether you consume it for reading a webpage, watching a movie, reading a social networking site, writing a blog post you should pay the same. This is where the major problem lies for telecom operators since there is significant money to be gained by violating net neutrality by discriminating the nature of the data. If you use social networking for communicating with your friends instead of using SMS, the telecom operators lose the SMS money. If you use Skype/Viber for voice communication, the telecom operators lose money they can make on charging phone calls. You could argue that the telecom operators are making more money now since you are still paying data charges. That is correct but then greed  gets in the way. Historically, the telecom operators had a leverage by controlling the applications that the telecom infrastructure could be used for. Of late, they have realized the internet infrastructure can be used for applications that they have no control of and hence they have no monopoly of the telecommunication applications and so they cannot make free money from people for just using the applications which the application developers can (youtube, skype …). The telecom regulators want a piece of this money that internet applications make for free in addition to the data charges by discriminating on the nature of the data. And this is where the real problem lies.

Is it all black and white then ?

A large awareness campaign is underway which is trying to educate the public about the perils of the move the telecom operators are undertaking. While most of the points in the awareness campaign make sense, a subtle point about equality in competition between large and small companies is trying to create a hogwash of the “David versus Goliath” story. The argument goes something like this. The telecom operators by violating net neutrality are going to discriminate between data packets to lets say Amazon and Flipkart (two e-commerce websites). As a result access to one of these websites would be significantly slower than the other owing to the prioritization. In order to gain parity, the company with the slower website must pay the telecom provider the same amount of money as the other provider or the user (i.e., you must pay some money to get the same speed to both the websites). That essentially means that some computers will be put on a high speed link and some on a low speed link and someone has to foot the bill, either you or the website provider.

Now the big question is, is this fair ?

I am not going to answer this. Instead of answering, think about how is this different between different sized companies competing with each other. Large companies always had a larger money pool to play with. Also consider the fact that just like you pay differently for different MB plans, computers that are sending data packets (servers where websites are housed) pay differently based on the plan they take, more for fatter wires with more data carrying capacity. So, is different speed to different websites unfair ? Is intentional slowing down and/or speeding up of the internet fair ?

Things maybe are not completely in black and white here but are shades of grey. Think for yourselves and decide.

So what should I do ?

Take a stand for net neutrality but be careful about your stand. Sign the petition (you need to actually email it) but take the time to read and/or edit the responses before sending it so that you understand what you are really saying instead of blindly supporting someone else’s stand.

Don’t let this happen

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