Ramblings of a Coder's Mind

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Net Neutrality: Why should I care?

Yes, that’s one of the most often asked questions right after “What is that?”. I don’t often provide this explanation to techies because doing that is as simple as giving them a few lines of explanation and pointing them to a good website with information. The real challenge, if you ask me, is explaining this problem to the everyday Joe out there. Especially since, in a place like India you’re likely to hear “we have bigger problems than __". This to me sounds like a blanket excuse for not wanting to deal with an issue at hand and here's how I tend to answer such queries.

What is net neutrality?

Net Neutrality is principle that all data on the internet needs to be treated equally by service providers and governments. This means for example your YouTube videos should stream at the same speed your Vimeo videos*all other conditions being equal.

Would you want your internet service provider to slow down YouTube so as to make you move to one of its competitors?

This is a very brief description. At the end of the post are some resources to help you understand what Net Neutrality is if you’re new to this discussion.

Net Neutrality isn’t a 1% problem.

Do you love your access to the internet? In this day and age, I view the Internet as a medium to impart information to those who didn’t have access to resources earlier. Over the past 15 years the introduction and mass penetration of smartphones in India is probably one of the greatest things that to have happened to our country. Have you ever gone driving between states with a map in your bag, gotten lost and spent time on the side of the road getting conflicting information about where you should go? I have. It sucks. With easy access to online maps, that’s rarely a concern these days :) This isn’t the only use case I can quote. I’m sure everyone has one. Yet, we undermine the significant contribution the internet has had in our lives (and I’m not talking about an endless stream of cat photographs on Facebook :))

Would you let this happen in any other industry?

You walk over to your local vegetable market and ask for 1kg of tomatoes. The vendor says it’s Rs. 10/kg if you’re making a salad and Rs. 30/kg if you’re making a curry. Would you be fine with this? Why does your vendor care what you’re doing with it?

Does your electricity company ask you for different rates for charging cell phones/laptops vs using TVs vs using ACs? It’s electricity. A unit is charged the same way irrespective of what you do with it.

Why should ISPs charge you different rates?

Claim: ”But I heard they want to charge us more to provide us faster connections for ‘special’ data”

No. They don’t.

With Net Neutrality

  • Regular data - normal speed

  • ‘Special’ data - normal speed

Without Net Neutrality when you pay them extra

  • Regular data - slower speed

  • ‘Special’ data - normal speed

Without Net Neutrality when you don’t pay them extra

  • Regular data - slower speed

  • ‘Special’ data - slower speed

This is, as John Oliver puts it, a classical mob shake down. Video is at the end of the post

Note: ‘Special’ Data refers to whatever they want to charge you extra for. Might be something like video streaming or VOIP.

Claim: “They want to charge extra because using the internet  for causes them to lose business"

Just so we’re clear, this is something I’ve heard in the Indian context. The services in question are VOIP services (such as Skype and Viber) and messaging services (mainly WhatsApp).

Lets take the example of WhatsApp. Telecos seem to be losing out on revenue for SMS services. At 30p/SMS, SMS is the most expensive (if not one of the most) form of communication used by the masses I can think of. The extremely high cost is precisely the reason why services like WhatsApp and Hike were able to come into the market.

Not being able to compete in a sector is no reason to stifle it using your monopoly as a mobile internet provider.

Lets say all dairies in your country sold cheese at insane rates. What if you found a way to produce (arguably?) a better quality cheese product for a lower price than the one dairies sell their’s at despite having to buy milk from them because you don’t have a source. Would I be fine with them increasing milk rates so you couldn’t afford to make the cheese cheaper any more? I wouldn’t. That’s why I don’t think charging extra for online messaging or VOIP services is acceptable.

Lets just boycott that telecom provider! That’ll teach ‘em.

No. It won’t. For two reasons mainly.

1) They have far too many users

Each telecom provider has tens if not hundreds of mobile users around the country. If your aim is to make them feel the loss of revenue, you’d have to have their revenue to go down at least a few percentage points. This means making 100,000 to a million (10,000,000) users switching service. If you had that kind of support, you probably have a better chance getting the government to take notice and do something.

2) Your provider isn’t the only one violating net neutrality

Sure, if there was an provider which stood by Net Neutrality, chances are that most of us would move to use their service. Not that it would help, but it’s a matter of principle. Still, that doesn’t fix the problem at hand.

Multiple major players in the market have considered violating neutrality in some form over the past few years. Even ones who haven’t would probably do so once they see their competitors increasing their earnings.

Airtel rolled back their decision. We’re saved!

We’re not. Not to sound gloomy and all but the battle is far from won. There is affirmative action still required to ensure Internet in India remains a level playing field. We need to ensure people with vested interests do not take advantage of the system and this can only happen through awareness. There are multiple issues plaguing internet access in India not the least of which are privacy and (lawful/unlawful; a debate in itself) censorship.

What can I do? I am another person.

Sure you are. You should never underestimate the power of one person in a democracy. Learn more about this issue. Become an advocate. Make others around you aware why this is a concern. Awareness and will to stand up against this is the only way to go forward.

Recommended Reference Videos

There are tons of great YouTube videos out there but there are 2 in general I recommend that I’ve come across over the past year or so. Each of these works on different sets of people.

CGP Grey’s Net Neutrality

CGP Grey hits it out of the park with amazing visualisations explaining what is Net Neutrality. It is a bit fast paced as all his videos are so you might want to rewind and hear stuff again if it’s too fast for you.

John Oliver on Net Neutrality

John Oliver does what he does best. Makes fun off things and explains important issues.

“please don’t eat my baaaby..”

Created: 29th December 2014
Category: Thoughts
Tags: net neutrality, social activisim, social awareness