How Indian ISPs Are Already Fighting Net Neutrality

How Indian ISPs Are Already Fighting Net Neutrality
Net Neutrality is not just an American problem.
Aroon DeepSymbiosis Center for Media & CommunicationPublished on 29 Sep, 2014

In 2002, Tim Wu coined the term Net Neutrality. Today, he is part of a large movement that is fighting for it to remain undisturbed in the US. But is net neutrality purely an American fight? I thought that it was strange that a concept that was so anti-consumer and pro-corporate was not being pursued in India. Turns out, it was. We just didn't identify it as such. First off, what is net neutrality? If you already know, skip the following section.

What is net neutrality?

Net Neutrality is the concept that all data on the internet is supposed to be treated equally by your Internet Service Provider. For example, Airtel, once it has connected you to the internet at an aristocratic price, should not slow down certain downloads or websites. However, net neutrality can also mean some other things as opposed to speed.

Why should I be bothered about net neutrality?

When's the last time you saw a (non-NSFW) video on a video sharing site that was not YouTube? YouTube succeeded because it is fast, popular, and convenient. There is minimal competition for YouTube, but there just might be in the future.

If net neutrality no longer exists, competition will not be about skill and creativity, it will be about the money that the website's owner can pay the ISPs. If Campus Diaries loaded as per ISPs' wishes, not a lot of people would have the patience to stay on the page, and net neutrality rules would prevent sites like this from ever gaining a foothold.

What is India doing about net neutrality?

In 2006, the TRAI sent a consultation paper to ISPs, asking them about Net Neutrality, whether it should be regulated by the TRAI or market forces. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were making a mistake asking the telecom industry instead of the consumers. Google answered in favor of Net Neutrality, but no further action was taken by the TRAI.

As a result, India has no legislation about Net Neutrality, and thus, the limits of what an ISP can or cannot do with your data is blurry, and as we can see below, they have tested the waters.

Have Indian ISPs ever violated net neutrality?

Yes. Yes, they have. In 2012, Airtel and BSNL throttled 9% of all BitTorrent data in the country. That is an astoundingly large amount of data. It's also a cheap shot, considering that P2P traffic like in BitTorrent is easier for an ISP to distinguish from web traffic.

There is also another way in which they have violated net neutrality: free domain access and app usage. Some mobile carriers (that also happen to offer broadband) offer websites like Google and Facebook for free, along with services like WhatsApp. This is usually for a limited amount of data, or as a part of a larger data package. This is a violation of net neutrality not from the speed perspective, but the cost perspective. Free access to certain domains and internet apps makes consumers more willing to subscribe to providers who have this free access. This pushes out competition that web conglomerates don't see as worthy enough to have a free-access agreement with. 

What do India's ISPs want to do next?

Indian ISPs are currently being more shrewder than their American counterparts by not advertising the violation of net neutrality behind terms like "fast lane" and "normal lane". They are using business jargon to their advantage, thus pushing articles about the topic to the back of the newspaper, and away from the front page of web-based news services. 

Testing his waters with the American-style anti-net neutrality stance, Sunil Mittal, Airtel's founder, supported an internet tax last year, where websites that use a particularly large amount of bandwidth on a network should be charged by ISPs. He said, "...YouTube is consuming a massive amount of resources on our network. Somebody’s got to pay for that." Yes, Sunil. Somebody should pay for that. And guess what, they are. They are called customers. 

"When somebody watches YouTube on a mobile and ends up [with a] big bill, he curses under his breath at telecom operators." Yes, we curse because it loaded slowly and the tariffs are unreasonably high. How about using the ginormous profits you are sitting on to actually upgrade your infrastructure instead of blaming content creators for distributing content that we pay you to serve? If your technology is not up to date with the volume of data that is currently passing through the internet, that's your fault, not ours, and not the websites'. 

More recently, they tried cost-based net neutrality violation. Airtel tried petitioning TRAI to allow them to "regulate" messenger apps like WhatsApp, which meant that they wanted to charge WhatsApp for "taking a bite out of [their] share". Fortunately, the TRAI rejected this. This is a ridiculous proposal, and it is good that the TRAI saw through it. Airtel does not take a commission from my messages on Gmail, it doesn't take a commission when I send a message on Facebook. This is certainly no different. By complying with Airtel's rules for network usage and paying them exactly what they are supposed to receive (and more), nobody has done wrong. Not us, and certainly not WhatsApp. Airtel deserves no commission on the messages we send on WhatsApp, just like it deserves no commission on the books we buy on Flipkart.

This will not be the last time Airtel has tried to violate net neutrality, and it is more necessary than ever to keep an eye on the telecom industry in general, because the mistakes Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and AT&T made in America have been taken note of back here at home. It is necessary for customer demand for better broadband infrastructure and stricter regulations (actual ones) for ISPs, so that they can't try and push some seemingly irrelevant paperwork to legalize net neutrality violation.

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@Sumit: I see why you can't consider cost violations in the same league, considering that Wikipedia Zero has this deal in several countries ...@Sumit: I see why you can't consider cost violations in the same league, considering that Wikipedia Zero has this deal in several countries, but at a point where Mobile ISPs start offering free access as part of a business deal to major websites, they lock out the upcoming competition, and that results in a non-collusion oligopoly, something America has already achieved (without the non-collusion part), and Indian ISPs are desperate to root into the market as thoroughly as American ISPs.
Net neutrality is going to be a bigger problem in the next 5 years in our country. Further, it will be compounded by a seemingly unrelated ...Net neutrality is going to be a bigger problem in the next 5 years in our country. Further, it will be compounded by a seemingly unrelated context - Indian laws' poor understanding and comprehension of ISPs rights and positioning the entire data and content chain too. You are correct in pointing out Airtel's inefficiency in managing their problems. However, I don't see the free facebook as a violation in the same breadth. Cost perspective is also a market + business deal that a product manages to crack with an ISP. However, the baboons that Airtel are, and being insecure about figuring out their losses (and not profits, surprisingly), they resort to the bullshit they tried with Whatsapp.