The word that has united more Indians than any other issue in the past few years. Everyone who has logged in to a social networking site, read a newspaper or hasn’t been living under a rock, has come across this term. Some have understood it, some have not, but most of us have accepted it. It is the prime argument against Facebook’s offering, FreeBasics, as it is believed to be in violation of Net Neutrality, thus making it a complete no-no.
So what is Net Neutrality? And if FreeBasics is in violation of it then we need to see whether it is violable or not.
Net Neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet are equal and should be treated equally by the government and ISPs. They shouldnt differentiate between data, whether it is based on user, content, site, platform. The differentiation being in terms of cost, speed and priority.
Fair enough. It looks like a great ideal to stand by. Extremely lucrative when taken on face value.
But lets go a bit deeper.
The idea of Net Neutrality lies on one single essential statement. All data on the internet is equal. Once you establish that, the rest falls into place automatically. You shouldnt be differentiating between equals. Makes sense.
But what net neutrality is so easily establishing as the base truth, is not true at all. All data are not equal. It never is. In any media. Whether it is the internet, telephonic data, books, postage, even verbally transmitted data.
Every media is filled with useless data, the normal data, and utmost important data. And in every media we have channels to filter or segregate the essentials from the non-essentials.
How can an advertisement on a webpage (which is data), be as important as say an earthquake warning (again data). They aren’t. Clearly the fact that there is an earthquake alert needs to get across to the user before the ad. It needs to get to him whether he has data left to spend. It needs to get to the people whether they are connected to the internet or not. The alert may be charged at a premium, at a discount or at the same rate. Doesn’t matter.
Lets look at a more realistic, near future scenario. With driverless cars on the horizon, the need for automobiles to be constantly connected to each other through the internet will be inevitable. And this communication has to be flawless.
Don’t you think such communication and data transfer would require it to be treated differently? Don’t you think such communication will require special channels? Channels that will allow only communication between automobiles and no other data. The speed of communication might be greater or lesser than your regular channel. How does that adhere to Net Neutrality?
What about the data pack for such communication? Shouldn’t the ISPs provide a separate pack for such a connection? A 24x7x365 active communication channel cannot be expected to be a part of your regular internet pack. Nor would you expect them to charge the same as regular internet.
Ditto for sectors like hospitals, data centers etc. Considering data coming to and from such sectors the same as any other data would be a big misstep.
Now let us look at the present scenario. Today most of us get a limited data pack that we need to ration and spend wisely. But no matter how cautious you are, you will unavoidably end up wasting some of that precious data when you bump into an ill-designed data heavy website, big video advertisements, a single misclick etc. All these end up eating into the precious data that you were rationing for things that you actually wanted to do.
Want to connect with your friends on whatsapp? Nope, you just wasted your data on a flash ad in some webpage.
Want to book a ticket urgently? Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten so adventurous when clicking random links last night.
The free internet that has been empowering until now might become a shackle with time. You cant get adventurous and exploring when on the internet because you might end up losing up on the daily essentials.
Wont a separate pack for such essential infact liberate us? Allow us to tread around the internet without worrying about not finding our way back?
Imagine if you had two lives. One life to go about with your daily essentials. And the other to indulge yourself in the extras. Wouldn’t it be better than having to choose between one or the other?
Whether you like it or not, net neutrality is not going to last long. And its not because of some evil plan to take over the world, but because it is the need of the hour. The more dependant we get on internet based data, the more we will need to prioritize amongst them.
The internet is in it nascent state still. It has been fairly neutral until now, and that’s ok, but you cant bind it under rules and stop it from evolving. The ideals of one time often become a burden in another.
Net Neutrality is an ideal situation. When channels are abundant and there is no need to prioritize one over the other. But until that time, it is just a false ideal.