Net neutrality has been a topic of debate since years now and yesterday (November 28) it just bounced back up on the web, making headlines on several news websites. Not only India is affected due to this but the US and the whole world for that matter. So in case you have not been following the entire hullabaloo around FCC, TRAI and Net Neutrality, here is your simple explainer.
What is Net Neutrality?
Well, quite a lot of us know what it is. But we’ll still give you a two-line explanation to clear any kinds of doubts. Net Neutrality in short and simple terms means equal access to online content by all. For instance, when you open a website or browse a video, you access it at the same speed as everybody else in the world. The traffic created by you is distributed equally across those companies that helped in making it possible. This includes your carrier network and other interconnected companies.
So this ‘Net Neutrality’ concept is great. It’s awesome. So why are we talking about it again?
We’re talking about it because the very idea of equal access to the internet is about to change.
What FCC did recently
FCC or US Federal Communications Commission, the chairman of which is Ajit Pai, recently proposed a plan to repeal Net Neutrality. In clear words – they plan to make access to select contents on the internet ‘unequal’ among users. Also in clear words – you might be blocked from accessing certain contents on the web and might be able to do so after paying in some way.
And this has been a topic of discussion since past couple of years. FCC proposed the plan back in 2010. The proposal, after getting viral attention in 2014, was given a thumbs down by the Obama administration in 2016, after which came Donald Trump.
The FCC adopted Net Neutrality rules in 2015 under the leadership of Tom Wheeler (appointed by former US president Barack Obama). Wheeler’s successor Ajit Pai (chosen by US president Donald Trump in 2016), said he will revisit the issue. And a few days ago he once again reinforced on the idea by unveiling a plan to kill ‘Net Neutrality’.
FCC, by the way, is a US government body that regulates communications done by radio, TVs, wire, satellite, and cable. Everything from broadband communication to spectrum and more comes under this body.
Why is FCC dismantling ‘Net Neutrality’?
As mentioned by Pai in the WSJ op-ed, the Internet is “the greatest free-market success story in history.” He says that the regulations (current regulations on the free and equal internet) made in 1930 is hurting the investment and shouldn’t be regulated as a utility, reports Fortune.
According to one of his interviews with NPR or National Public Radio website, Pai said that by these plans he wants to bring back the Internet like it was in the 1990s.
“President Clinton got it right in 1996 when he established a free market-based approach to this new thing called the Internet, and the Internet economy we have is a result of his light-touch regulatory vision,” Pai said.
“We saw companies like Facebook and Amazon and Google become global powerhouses precisely because we had light-touch rules that apply to this Internet. And the Internet wasn’t broken in 2015 when these heavy-handed regulations were adopted.”
His plans would require Internet service providers (ISPs) to disclose what sites they are throttling or blocking for its users. Websites can instead, pay the ISPs to give a preferential treatment.
Read more: Here’s why ‘KRACK Attack’ is a big deal
For instance, a big organisation will pay your Internet Service Provider more to give you a seamless access to their website, while other organisations might not be able to afford that much. As a result, the ISP won’t let you access the latter’s websites as easily as the former’s.
Major tech firms speak up on ‘Net Neutrality’
It’s not just you and me getting infuriated on Pai’s plans to outright kill Net Neutrality, but some big tech firms have shown their dissent on the matter as well. Companies on the list are Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google’s parent company Alphabet, Dropbox, Airbnb, Snap, Spotify and more.
“The Internet should be competitive and open,” said Google in an early statement. “That means no Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others. These rules should apply regardless of whether you’re accessing the Internet using a cable connection, a wireless service, or any other technology.”
Facebook added that “We are disappointed that the proposal announced today by the FCC fails to maintain the strong net neutrality protections that will ensure the Internet remains open for everyone.” It also said to the New York Times that, “We will work with all stakeholders committed to this principle.”
Another set of tech firms support it…because obviously
Yes, there are always two sides of the coin and on the other side you have companies like AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and more. And obviously, they support FCC’s plans because they will be the ones reaping the benefits from it. The big organisations will be paying nobody but them to make their content easily accessible.
“The FCC is not talking about killing the net neutrality rules,” said Verizon general counsel Craig Sillman in a video, according to the Fortune website. “In fact not we nor any other ISP are asking them to kill the open Internet rules. All they’re doing is looking to put the open Internet rules in an enforceable way on a different legal footing.”
So where does India’s TRAI fit in all this?
TRAI or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, on November 28 has given its take on Net Neutrality. The government body has spoken in support of equal Internet access for all, bringing a smile to the faces of many. This, by extension, means that India has spoken in support of Net Neutrality. And India’s support surely gives out a statement at a global level that there should be equal access for all.
However, this is not the final decision. DoT or Department of Telecom is yet to approve this move. Once agreed, the body will be making required changes to make Net Neutrality a part of the license agreement.
This would mean that telecom companies in India won’t be able to charge you extra to access a certain part of the internet or bundle a few apps or online content for some amount and other such limitations.
What happens in 2020 or 2024?
This whole proposal is likely to take a U-turn. Yes. Even if Pai’s proposal gets a thumbs-up in December 14’s voting, it may change by 2020 with the arrival of a new president. If not in 2020, another president will be changing the course of this by 2024.