A lot has been said about #netneutrality in the last few days, from how dear ol’ “altruistic” Zucky has a golden heart and wants to see poor kids in Chandauli access
Facebook the Internet for free, and how Airtel just wants every poor child to access “the Internet”, to how the debate is full of metaphors like a fishermen’s net is full of fish in the evening.
So let me take a jump in the net neutrality discussion to talk about three issues that have been bugging me related to this:
1. Idea & IIN
2. The cable TV metaphor, and
3. The toll-free number metaphor.
Idea & IIN
We don’t see the connect between Idea’s IIN ads and net neutrality yet. It isn’t directly related, but it does lay down the groundwork for the idea (pun unintended) that somehow, the mobile operators/ISPs are the magnanimous fellows who are bringing all this wonderful Internet magic to you, and by association, can claim ownership to the content and innovation it brings along.
You’ve seen the IIN ads – where Idea’s Internet Network is the source of education for all the underprivileged, all who have been wronged by unfair selection practices in traditional educational institutions, and all who are mocked by their peers, but have the zeal to learn on their own.
Wow so cool. Except that Idea has nothing to do with it. Like I tweeted a few days ago, it’s like BEST laying claim for the education of your kid who goes to college by bus and becomes a lawyer. There, one more metaphor – take it and go.
Yes, Idea (or any mobile operator/ISP) isn’t providing anything beyond a connection to the Internet. They aren’t providing a platform. They surely aren’t creating the content that’s adding to our education when we decide to educate ourselves. The people in the ads could very well learn the exact same thing, find the exact same information if they were using a Vodafone connection, or were accessing the Internet through a local cable broadband connection.
If anything, Idea and other mobile operators are responsible for impeding said education due to their pathetic network quality and high data prices.
The Cable TV Metaphor
Mobile operator sympathizers have been citing the way cable MSOs operate as the model for internet access, which is, you choose which channels you want to watch and subscribe to those, in addition to a basic access charge, that you pay your MSO or local cable guy. Certain channel groups have tie-ups with certain large MSOs and not with others, so certain channels are available only on the former and not on the latter. Nobody complains there, so why the hue and cry this time?
To start with, that one industry is being run as a racket can not and should not be used to justify attempts to destroy another network and technology. But let’s keep that aside for a while.
TV and the Internet can not be compared. Here is why. In the case of TV, a cable/dish subscription is nothing but a bundle of channels, it’s a one-way medium, and we’re all purely consumers. Add to that, we do not do our daily communication and business over television waves. It’s a pure mass-media system.
The Internet, on the other hand, is not just another media. It’s not a bundle of websites, and not at all a bundle of websites the folks at Airtel / Reliance / Internet.org can decide it to be. It’s like the ocean, where these websites exist, and thrive purely on merit, either of technology, content, or marketing, not because they sign up with particular ISPs so that those ISPs agree to delivery their bytes to end-users. The Internet is not “just a technology”, the Internet is an entity of its own, and you do not get to call it the Internet if you do not let me access certain sites based on tieups your tieup sales team has made.
Secondly, the Internet has always been about choice. I choose to open Vimeo or YouTube at the time I please, and search for the video I want to see, and choose to watch the one I like. Compare this with TV, where the channel decides which content is appropriate for its audiences, and when it should be aired – the only choice we have is to either watch it or watch some other channel altogether.
I am not just a consumer on the Internet. I am also a content creator. Through our websites, blogs, social profiles, we disseminate content.
We are, at the same time, consumers and creators of content.
More importantly, I am not just a consumer on the Internet. I am also a content creator. Through our websites, blogs, social profiles, we disseminate content, of varying levels of intensity and seriousness. In addition to that, people like me make our living through the Internet. We are, at the same time, consumers and creators of content. And with this freedom to create and innovate, the number of web properties increases every day. Can the ISPs play god by deciding which ones of these you and I, or the kids in Chandauli get to see?
The Toll-Free Number Metaphor
We started hearing this when Airtel started feeling the heat of the public backlash. In fact, an email arrived in many mailboxes today from Airtel’s MD & CEO Mr. Gopal Vittal, where he insists that Airtel Zero is nothing but a 1800 service for websites.
Except that it’s not.
I can call a 1800 number from any SIM card or landline phone within the geographic boundaries, and not be charged. To access the “1800 website” I will have to sign up with Airtel Zero’s service on an Airtel SIM card. The metaphor does not go the whole hog Mr. Vittal.
Once again, the Internet is not comprised of a bundle of websites or phone numbers. It’s a place where different forms of media and platforms and properties are being created every hour, and that’s the beauty of it. “Websites” are one type of property on the web, though the dominant ones, but there are other types of properties, and more such will keep coming up as innovation goes on.
…the illusion of choice the mobile operators are talking about, is for the provider of the content, and not you and me, the consumer of the content.
Also, to access a 1800 number, all I do is dial the said number (the transaction with the network begins there), and be assured that the conversation is between the owner of the number and me (unless there’s tapping going on, in which case we have other serious issues to handle). In the case of Airtel Zero or Internet.org, the only way the ISPs can make sure I am not billed for going to their favourite sites is by snooping on my data packets (because my transaction with the ISP begins when I log on, or in the case of mobile internet, it’s an ongoing transaction). This is gross violation of my privacy, and it’s none of their business to be looking at the data I am sending and receiving.
In the end, the illusion of choice the mobile operators are talking about, is for the provider of the content, and not you and me, the consumer of the content. You and I don’t choose whether we get Flipkart for free or Amazon. It’s only the choice of Bansal or Bezos to sign up with these “zero plans” if they want more visitors to their sites. We don’t get any choice if there’s no net neutrality going forward.
If we let the mobile operators/ISPs decide which sites we can and cannot access, and do not insist on net neutrality today, maybe going forward you’ll be charged extra to read this blog, or simply access WordPress.com, or maybe you simply can’t access these, because they’re not part of the bundle that your ISP is offering you.
Do your bit today, visit www.savetheinternet.in, or www.netneutrality.in to know more about the issue and find out what actions you can take to prevent mobile operators and ISPs from taking the Internet hostage.
Disclaimer: I run a firm which makes web properties and runs its entire business on the web.
Disclaimer 2: I am trying to post this blog through the Airtel broadband connection I have at home, which after the miniscule 15GB FUP (which can be exhausted in a mere 5 OSX updates) runs at the awesomely slow speed of 512kbps. I’m frustrated with them over this, but net neutrality is way bigger than petty quibbles over data packs ending prematurely.
(Post’s featured image from FreePress on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)