We take a break from our regular programming to talk about an important issue concerning all of us, the issue of Net Neutrality. Internet provides a radically new way for authors and publishers to engage with the readers. In this post, we try to explain why and how violating Net Neutrality principle via schemes like Zero Rating changes that and makes internet less useful for everyone.
You may have come across the recent brouhaha over something called Net Neutrality. You might also have heard about something called Zero Rated apps, apps for which you do not have to pay data charges. That’s amazing, right? No data charges for the popular apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Flipkart! What can be bad about this?
Before discussing Zero Rating, let’s take a moment to understand the idea of Net Neutrality. The idea of net neutrality says that the same type of traffic on internet should be treated the same. So while it is ok to prioritize time sensitive data, all the time sensitive data should be similarly prioritized irrespective of the sender and the receiver. This general principle manifests in many different forms. For example, it should not be possible for a telco to slowdown Flipkart website while keeping Amazon.com fast. Or charge differently for accessing Flipkart than for accessing Amazon. That seems reasonable, you say but what has zero rating got to do with it?
How the zero rated apps work is that Telecom companies offer zero rated app packs which let the user access all the zero rated apps but there is no general data connectivity included with the plan, thus rendering rest of the internet inaccessible. Users will be free to buy separate data packs but if all the major services are available for free, not many people will end up doing that. Especially those who have never experienced internet otherwise. Surveys in many countries have reveled the astonishing fact that millions of Facebook users have no idea that they are using internet! That cannot be a good thing!
As an author, you are marketing your book, engaging with readers on social media, building a website. You post a link to your latest blogpost. But oops! your blog service is not zero rated. So people cannot access it. You have link to your personal website in your bio. Again oops! unless the service where you built your website is zero rated, no luck. Somebody posted a review of your book on their non zero rated blog? Hard luck! You are limited to interacting with them only within the zero rated universe.
You might think that is not too bad as long as all the major services are covered. Your major presence/activity is anyway limited to like Twitter/Facebook. But what is likely to happen once you are locked into these services? If anyone of you had a Facebook page with a large fan base couple of years ago, you know the answer. Facebook tweaked their algorithm so that the updates you posted on your page stopped reaching majority of your audience. And then they introduced promoted posts where you could pay them to put the update on the timeline of your fans.
Make no mistake. The internet is a great leveler of playing field since it allows same level of access to everyone. You can choose to build your website wherever you want and be assured that anyone on the internet will be able to access it. Users don’t have to worry about if they are paying more for accessing one site or the other. Hence they go to the site that offers the best content. As an author, as a small entrepreneur (which all authors are), this is the magical power that internet gives you. And zero rating takes this away by dividing internet into chunks of free and non-free.
But let’s take a step back and address one of the stated motivations behind zero rating apps in India. We want more and more Indians to come online so that they can participate in the digital economy, find information, business and education. Being connected to the world is a huge blessing. But in order to connect to internet, you have to pay for the data pack over and above your mobile plan. A large percentage of people never do it. There is a economic barrier which is prevents them from taking advantage of this wonderful resource. If we zero rate an app, then all these people who have never experienced internet, will be able to do so without additional cost. Imagine the students everywhere having access to Wikipedia!
And while they won’t be able to access the whole of internet, isn’t some access better than no access? It is but not when someone else decides what is that “some access”. Consider Internet.org, a program launched by Facebook that offers a set of websites and Facebook for free. The set of sites are decided in consultation with the local government. Is that the central government? State government? District administration? What happens when the government changes? What happens if ruling party wants it’s website to be included in the plan? Why are none of the government websites available via it? Who decides if it is more important for a person to have access to Facebook and bunch of news sites (who all make money based on his access) and not to various government services? Wouldn’t it be better to provide him 100 MB free data and let him make that decision for himself?
The digital divide is real and it is important that we address it urgently but we need to do that without destroying the primary value of being online. There are several alternatives – all of which should be employed to tackle the issue. One option is telcos providing a free data plan with low data cap to new users. This will give the users a taste of internet without biasing it one way or the other. Other option is to continuously work to bring down the cost of data access so that the economic barrier is lowered. We as a country are also investing in building a comprehensive optical fiber network, thus taking high speed broadband to villages. That is how India will come online. People need cheaper access to full internet, not free access to a poorer internet.
What can you do?
This is a very critical time for this debate in India. TRAI is in the process of formulating policies and rules around Net Neutrality. They have invited comments on a paper they have put out. The last date for sending comments is 24th April. Please write to them. The link provides pre-written answers to the 20 questions that TRAI has asked. The answers has been prepared by lawyers and other experts, citing reports and data. You should read them, adjust them as you deem fit and send them to TRAI. Close to 1 million people have already written to them. Your voice matters.