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The Air around Airtel Zero is not so clear: Net Neutrality in India

My humble attempt at clearing the vague dogmas surrounding Net Neutrality and the impact of telecoms infringing on it.

AbhishekAbhishek

Did this page load quickly for you?

Did you have to pay to open this page?

Does this website contain content that you might not agree with?

Do you like using the internet and like it to move quickly?

Are this too many rhetorical questions to start a serious piece on?

If you’ve been reading the news lately you might have heard that Net Neutrality is an issue currently in contention. If you don’t use the internet, well, then you’re not reading this article, so disregard this.

But for people who do, how many of you are familiar with Net Neutrality? If I asked you to define it could you?

I have earned my bread and butter with the internet, running and maintaining websites, and I’d like, for a bit, to share my love for it.

The internet is a universe comprised entirely of information. I remember when I first got on, with that creaking dial-up modem, that sound of “cat screeching for milk” to load simple webpages written in simple code.

I have watched the internet grow every year, more users, even more content. It is a big bang of information, a universe of content, expanding continuously outward, almost all the information that humanity has ever known that exists, exists on it.

It connects people, from places as remote as little island countries you’ve never heard of, to just down the street. It connects, it spreads, and it can create change. Across the world people use it for all kinds of reasons, to explore the world from the comfort of their homes.

And it is in danger.

India has never had Net Neutrality rules, it’s always been an unequal system, but now that Airtel has conveniently stepped on too many people’s purses, people are taking notice.

If you don’t know what Net Neutrality is, I’m here to help, if you do, then I’m here for you to shake your fist in the air in agreement. Let’s discuss this and keep it… uhm, civil? And if you are sufficiently angry by the end, then perhaps you can join the fight.

Net Neutrality, what is it?

Ask thirteen different telecom companies what Net Neutrality is and you’ll receive thirteen incorrect & extremely disappointing answers.

If one of your enjoyment activities includes America watching, then you’ll, no doubt, have seen this same issue over there; with equally disgusting responses from their politicians. You’ll get well funded reasons why having a neutral Internet is bad for you, with responses that are generally as straightforwardly infantile as “It’s bad people seriously, it’s super bad, I don’t know what it is, but I know that my cable masters don’t like so I don’t! grumble grumble grumble” that is a paraphrase of Ted Cruz, a politician in the US who has a vested self-interest over the good of the people.

Did that sound familiar?

Ok, I’m getting distracted, let’s define Net Neutrality.

Basically, Net Neutrality is a pure free market for information. Anyone can view or post anything anywhere at any time. In internet terms this means that an equal amount of bandwidth (the amount of information that is being moved in bytes) is allotted to everybody with no extra cost or other impediments.

If you listened to Airtel, Gopal Vittal or any of the other major players in this debacle, you’ve probably heard that they are in support of it. Of course, every politician and powerful person is going to say they support freedom.

I mean seriously – who, in their correct frame of mind, is going to say they don’t support freedom?

"I support subjugation of my people and followers"
— No one ever

That would go over very well I’m sure.

But with Airtel Zero and the lack of strict net neutrality regulations, the OTT issues and TRAI configurations falling apart, that’s exactly what they can do, even if they put a pretty picture on it.

Still don’t believe me, watch this video by AIB – a group of Indian stand-up comics that have done an excellent job in explaining #NetNeutrality in layman terms. Once you’re done with the video, continue reading on. Or don’t. It’s a neutral Internet (so far), and you’re free to return to your Cat Videos or Pornhub or whatever else it was that you were doing.

The Battle for Net Neutrality Pt. 1, What’s in Phrasing?

Still reading? Fantastic!

The problem a lot of the telecom carriers have with Net Neutrality is that it would be a way to hinder their earnings. If they had to indiscriminately provide access to everybody at equal cost, that would mean they would lose money.

Because obviously, that’s how the world works.

I understand the necessity of money. Money, for better or ill, makes the world turn, it dictates survival, especially for the internet. I live pretty comfortably, and I could go on a long personal diatribe about how the lack of net neutrality affects me personally. But that would be an act of selfishness.

I’ve seen over the last couple of days, both Airtel and its Airtel Zero service blowing up in its face. The internet has spoken, so much so that Gopal Vittal, CEO of Airtel has had to “Clear the air about Airtel Zero” via a mass mail to all it’s subscribers. He is claiming that creating a “Toll-free” (the words used in his email) is not going against Net Neutrality and that this whole thing is one great big misunderstanding. His claim is that Airtel is devoted to Net Neutrality, that giving every Indian Internet access is Airtel’s goal, which is why Airtel Zero was created.

Well… at the risk of sounding a bit condescending, if there is a “Toll-free” internet, doesn’t that mean there is also a toll version as well?

I am a religious man, Advaitic to the bone, and if there is the presence of one, then the implication is the other most assuredly exists. You cannot only say “Toll-Free” without having its opposite exist.

Also, didn’t Airtel try and tax VOIP (Phone calls over the Internet) only recently? So much so for getting Internet access to every Indian.

One of the central issues of Net Neutrality is the concept of a Toll. That is, having the websites and content creators pay an extra premium to display their content at an equal speed.

To put it in perspective, let’s go back to America for a moment. Being a world citizen means I have to keep myself apprised of their comings and goings, so I know quite a bit about them.

The Battle for Net Neutrality Pt. 2: What’s in an Ideal?

In America, the conservative portions of their government have been fighting, tooth and nail to stall Net Neutrality. They believe it impinges on the individual freedoms.

Freedom! It’s going to cut in on your freedom!

That is… only partly true.

Net neutrality rules are in fact a form of regulation, they would require telecom companies to keep all bandwidth free to everybody. They wouldn’t be free to charge you more money to access certain websites.

It’s both a freedom and a restriction. And that’s why telecom companies worldwide have been able to argue against it at all.

It restricts their freedom to oppress.

In the age of the internet, information is one of the most valuable commodities. Good information and good ideas can spread like wildfire and enact change, a good idea, allowed to flourish freely, and with a bit of luck can change the world.

Remember, Facebook was at one time, just a very good idea. One that if Net Neutrality didn’t exist, would never have grown.

I apologize, I keep digressing on why that is, I swear I’m building to my point.

To be concise – without Net Neutrality, telecom companies can charge extra fees for services to keep the bandwidth at an even keel. So big companies like Facebook and Flipkart and all the websites you frequently visit will be fine, partly because of their huge bank balances. It is worth mentioning, that Flipkart did try and leap up on Airtel Zero while it was still being setup. It had to withdraw though after a huge backlash and boycott by Netizens across India. They backed out publicly too, along with a message directly from the founders.

The smaller ones, well…

If you can’t afford these fees or “Tolls” or “Rent” as Kushan Mitra from DailyPioneer.com describes it, then your service will be slowed. The American political complex, with their best team of word spinners have dubbed it “Fast lanes and faster lanes”, there will be no diminishing of the service that you already have, just those who can shell out more will be able to have “Even faster” service.

Wait! That sounds very familiar. Oh right! Vittal just said the same exact thing, literally. That entire letter to clear the air made the same exact argument.

Yet people didn’t buy it… Hmmm! Curious.

You have to admire today’s general level of skepticism towards gigantic forces saying they’re fighting for the little guy, “No, we really just want to make your life better, that’ll be Rs. 500 more please”.

It reminds me of a book I read when I was young: Animal Farm, by George Orwell.

“All animals are equal, some are just more equal than others”.

Like that fundamental paradox in that book, so to do proponents for the telecom companies make the same argument. And it’s tiring. Information is power, you know it, and I know it. Telecom companies have an unreasonable amount of power.

The Internet’s Response:

Think of a time when you’ve been told this “Hey, we’re going to charge you more money for this service and then we’re going to make it worse, except we’re going to pretty it up with some nice words and an unreadable contract so that you don’t realise it”.

Did you react well to that? I’m going to say no.

You’re not alone, the internet’s response to the fight for a neutral playing field has been… big, and loud, and to the point.

Medianama have been great on that front so far. With people like Nikhil Pahwa, Riddhi Mukherjee, and their staff having led the charge against telecom companies and their points couldn’t be more – on point.

I definitely could have said that better.

They’re like me, they survive on the internet, the internet provides for them and their families. The internet is their bread and butter, and if they can’t use it because they can’t afford the overhead that comes with that they’re out of a job.

And for those not well acquainted it’s important that I make this clear, because there are plenty of people who don’t realize this: There are people whose livelihood depend on using the internet.

Myself included.

Having an open internet is vital to so many people’s survival it’s absurd that we have to argue this. But it seems that greed is a powerful thing.

Look, I am capable of empathy, I can understand that the telecom companies survive by providing this service to people. But they are abusing that in addition to making money for themselves. In their pursuit of money they are leaving a large number of people in the dirt, people just like them who also use the information super highway (goodness, that phrase needed some dusting off) for survival. And they have good PR teams, people who spend hours coming up with just the right set of words to placate the masses, to assure them that everything is ok, that they really just want to help, it isn’t going to make the internet worse, it’s just going to change. Things change, so it’s inevitable, hey where are you going? I was talking about how the telecom companies are really just good guys.

Internet users have risen up and spoken, for all its faults, people like the internet the way it is. They like being able to use it freely, to post freely and to make commentary freely. Or maybe they aren’t happy with the way things are, they want to change something. Maybe the next Google is brewing in somebody’s basement. Maybe someone is looking to start stuff in a big way, maybe they want to argue about the merits of net neutrality.

They won’t be able to in India on the current track.

And that’ why it’s so imperative that everyone and their mother and their grandmother and their great grandmother make a statement of annoyance on this topic. It’s important that we collectively rise to talk about how awful the death of Net Neutrality is because if we don’t then it will be gone, and innovation will stall, and the telecom companies will make a lot of money.

The Cost:

Right now the debate in India has only just started, it’s been raging in America for a bit, but the annoyance at the prospect has not abated yet. Just like the republicans over there. Airtel has started its own war against the masses. On the Bharti Airtel twitter page the tweets that were once civil have started taking a turn, more importantly their latest tweet is as such:

“There are good reasons to be anti-net neutrality, but you really need to trust telecom companies [link to article]”

I’ll translate that for you “we’re on the defense because people really don’t like how we’re handling things”.

There is a very straightforward reason for that.

YOU AREN’T WORKING IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE PEOPLE.

Like the people at Medianama, Tech2, Firstpost, Indianexpress and many others, I am fiercely pro-Net Neutrality (as if that weren’t already evident). Anyone who has an understanding of economics, cares about others, and uses the internet should be pro-Net Neutrality.

Because there is a cost. I am about to reference dark times, but the point is important enough that this possible slippery slope feels justified.

Russia (Soviet Union), when it adopted communism instituted the idea of Collective Farming, they said it would encourage a strong communist ideal, people would prosper, there would be more for everybody, and everybody would win.

Mao Tse-Tung’s great leap forward, much in the same vein would ease the plight of the common man, spread the wealth for everybody, make China a better place.

As the history books point out (unless you are in China or Russia), those worked out approximately as well as a hurricane.

That is to say utter disasters.

Throughout history people have made pie in the sky promises to the people implementing changes that will make things better for everybody, operating on extremes with a mind for “change” and “progress”.

Even though Airtel Zero at face seems like the opposite of an issue pertaining to Net Neutrality one, it’s a toll FREE service, it’s meant to make things easier for internet consumers, not harder. Why is everyone so angry? It’s going to make things better.

I have now used that rhetorical device of dramatic irony with a notion of working towards betterment a number of times now. I’m using it repeatedly because it’s always the go to for the big companies justifying their morally questionable behavior. A pretty face with no actual justification for their activities.

As I also said, the presence of a toll-free zone indicates that a toll zone also exists.

Maybe Net Neutrality won’t cause mass starvation, suffering and millions of deaths like the foolish actions of Lenin/Stalin and Tse-Tung.

But….

The world is growing faster, smarter, better, and that’s because of the internet. If we allow these people in India, and everywhere to make some information “more equal” than other parts, then there is a real chance that growth of this nature will stall, innovation will suffer, expression will fall under its weight.

I have tried my best to keep this light, but that is the cost, and it’s dark. I can make all the snarky jokes about it, but when we get down to it, you have to weigh the almighty dollar in a few pockets against the progress of not only India, but the global country that the internet has created. If we can grow we need to be allowed to. We need to let new idea flow freely, unimpeded. We need to have all ideas be shared, even the crappy ones, even the mean ones.

To not allow that growth is a detriment. We don’t exist outside of time, we can’t see the future, we can’t see which website is the next Facebook, which new service will be the one that will change the world forever. We don’t know which one will ultimately become the one we couldn’t imagine living without.

The cost of losing net neutrality is a progression in the wrong direction.

The State of Affairs

Currently, Airtel is in a defensive position, their program is getting enough backlash at such a ground swell that it is making the big wigs at Comcast laugh derisively. They are scrambling to save face and justify their own actions.

It is a step in the right direction.

I want to see the internet grow, I’ve seen it from the time when it was slow barely loading a page. I was there for when Facebook grew, I was there for when making a website, keeping a blog, making content became a reasonable means of survival. I’ve seen the internet grow bigger and faster over time and I’m excited for a future where it continues to expand and change, not only for itself, but in how we interact with the world, answer some of life’s greatest questions, and ultimately bring the world together under a larger, connected banner.

And it is with that love that I am equally inflamed with rage at the telecom companies for continuing to try and steal Net Neutrality from us. They try to justify their arguments, they try to appeal to the common man, they try to convince you that they know what you want better than you do. So just give up, let them do what they want.

We will not stand for that, I will not stand for that, and you shouldn’t either.

At this point, if I have sufficiently fomented rage in your heart, I ask you to listen to this next portion carefully so that you too can do something.

How can you save the internet?

If you have made it this far, thank you, I appreciate it. But more importantly, I hope you are asking yourself what you can do to make a difference? What can you do to make the telecom companies sit up and listen, stop trying to justify themselves?

If you have twitter, if you have a blog, if you have a voice on the internet stage. Stand up and shout it out, you will not stand for this infringement on Net Neutrality.

If you have an email account – visit SaveTheInternet.in and send off an email to TRAI – send one to Airtel too. TRAI claims to want to hear your opinion and has given you until the 24th of this month to let your voice be heard. Make sure they hear it loud. Loud and clear.

In the age of information, the voice is powerful. One voice is strong, but many united are a force to be reckoned with. Empires rise and fall by word of mouth these days. You can change the state of affairs, Net Neutrality allows you to do it.

Be like Medianama, write about it, spread the word, explain how Net Neutrality impacts everybody, tweet your displeasure with the companies, build the backlash. If you see a particularly salient article on the issue (ahem, sorry, something in my throat), then share it. If you have trouble explaining it, then look for people who do know how to explain and share their words.

It may not feel like much, but when thousands, no, millions of people on the internet rally together, miraculous things can happen. Revolutions are made in the in between big events, and this is your chance to help. You may not see direct results, but the backlash has already forced Gopal Vittal into a corner, he’s had to justify the creation of Airtel Zero, he’s had to argue for himself. When someone has to justify their behavior that means they’ve been found out and they’re saving face.

It is such a general, cliché’d example, but the Mahatma secured independence from Britain by being dissatisfied and passively resisting the oppressors. He used words, and his body, but not his fists to call attention to these issues. He inspired the passions of the people, united them, and brought India out of oppression.

The internet is under attack, it may not be as evident as people being physically oppressed, it doesn’t impact most people’s physical well-being, and if you believe what the telecom companies say then I’m just a fear monger and so are the rest of the people fighting in the name of net neutrality.

I disagree, I’ve studied too much history, seen too much of what good intentions and greed combined create. I’ve studied and lived it, and I live because of the Internet. If I don’t fight for it, I’m not doing my job as a concerned citizen.

Conclusion

Ultimately, things cannot remain the way they are, Airtel Zero is just one straw in the bundle, but it is the one that broke the people’s backs. Now that people are becoming aware of Net Neutrality, now that they know what’s at stake, things are beginning to look up.

In America, though Net Neutrality is currently safe, the republicans are still fighting to undo that protection, get the telecom companies (and themselves more money), it’s the same in India. The only difference is that there are no protections.

I’ve already outlined a way for you to help, I’ve poured myself out, slightly repetitively, hopefully with some aplomb and passion, and I’ve ultimately reinforced points that if you didn’t know well, you know slightly better. If you already agree with me, I commend you, if you don’t agree with me, then I’m guessing you’re employed by a telecom company at a higher level. If you are reading this, then thank net neutrality for being able to get my voice across to someone so powerful as yourself.

The internet is the great equalizer, it makes those in power and those not on equal footing. But it won’t remain that way if net neutrality isn’t there. Together, let’s protect it.

May the force be with you.

(Ignore grammatical errors, if any! This was my first post on this new blog, albeit a long one!)

Mumbai Kid. Internet Entrepreneur, Online Traction Consultant, UI/UX Enthusiast, Innovation, Automation, Wordpress/PHP, Optimist, Workaholic, Honest!

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