Let us assume that the internet is a democracy.

Does that imply that it also suffers from the drawbacks of any garden-variety democracy: vote banks, psephology pre-gaming, abdication of all responsibility by high-decibel prime time newscasters, advertisement-based results, an overhaul of the law-making process by industrial lobbies?

The internet definitely is a democracy – the greatest proof being that China doesn’t want it. Whether the rest follow is a matter of deduction.

Contrary to the idea that democracy starts, relapses, and goes to rehab at the electoral booth, the strength of democracy is determined by its ability to weigh controversial ideas fairly with infrequent knee-jerk interruptions. If the internet were to be a democracy, how strong a democracy would it then be? Would it be the virtual equivalent of a Pakistan – virtually a military state under the guise of a democratic system; or would it be a Scandinavian socialist – voting on matters of least significance first; or would it be a khap panchayat – mandated by majority opinion, even if it is the misinformed opinion?

India this week offered an answer. India this week was engulfed by the call to action against TRAI’s Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top Services. The public furor was unleashed after a Rohan Joshi mid-day column  and escalated after a video by AIB (NB: if sections of society think they are criminals, does that make this an act of vigilante justice?) on the issue of Net Neutrality. TRAI is open to discussion with interested parties on this issue till the 24th of April, and if you haven’t already, you should let them have it here.

Several developments have followed since. To begin with, TRAI has changed its junk mail threshold after receiving over 3 lakh complaints within 48 hours of the video being uploaded. Then arose the Airtel Zero debacle wherein Flipkart was forced to publicly unsubscribe from this programme, which they managed to do with the subtlety of a 5 year old with crayons, on LSD. The raging debate even forced a white man to defend his actions, when Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement, in effect, justifying Internet.org’s partnership with Reliance Communications:

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(Source: Indian Express)

The manner in which he insinuates that the applicability of a principle (such as net neutrality) may somehow depend on geographical factors such as whether ‘most people are online’ or not makes for entertaining casual reading in how easy it is to ridicule.

While most of the Indian media has been busy congratulating itself for latching onto a trend instigated on modern technology like YouTube, another debate has lied majorly unreported: Net Neutrality versus Zero-rating programs.

Zero-rating programmes are those which allow toll-free access to certain parts of the internet based on specific contracts between ISPs and the webmasters who run those parts of the internet. Internet.org is just one such programme, which is also associated with non-profit Wikipedia and other affiliates. Zero-rating programs are already widespread, and we use them regularly, such as the ‘free’ WhatsApp data packs which have become a staple of our monthly rations and several others. Airtel Zero was one such programme. These allow access to only certain parts of the internet, such as WhatsApp in this case, at a lower fee due to agreements with ISPs wherein WhatsApp agrees to bear a part of the end-user’s expenses in order to bring more customers to their service.

The problem is, if net neutrality proposes that all data is equal, zero-rating programs void net neutrality by making certain data more accessible than others.

The internet can easily turn into a mob with pitchforks waiting for the cursor to point them in the wrong direction. That’s particularly easy for a mob – any direction is the wrong direction.

You might still remember the recent ‘It’s My Choice’ video starring Ms. Padukone from multiple news-cycles past. When women’s issues have been on national headlines, any video tagged with ‘feminism’ first gets heralded as an empowerment of the thought-revolution, anticipating support irrespective of content. Yet it does not take long for public opinion to reshape the way the video is packaged. In either case, the video got presented.

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You were saying?

 

Opinions turn, return, and overturn. Opinion, for the aspirational Indian internet ends up, without exception, becoming an indicator of status. The nouveau riche mindset makes publicly flashing vicariously learnt opinions a source of identity.

Always on the lookout for a stronger and more unified identity for ourselves, we fear being on the wrong team. The knee-jerk reaction is to Like and Share opinions made readily available by others with vested interests. No one wants to miss out on the opportunity to be seen as ‘XYZ Likes the next big thing’, and quickly jumps into the biggest boat. The Share button amplifies this adolescent paranoia.

If net neutrality really is a debate, I hereby oppose the motion. Absolute neutrality of the internet is not only impossible, but undesirable.

Why is it that when the grocery-waala offers an item for sale at a reduced mark-up to push up his/her own sales, it’s a coupon discount for aunties, but when an internet vendor does the same to us we accuse them of violating an ethical code? Just as we have the right to expect a modicum of fairness from our ISPs, a webmaster has the right to maximise his reach and practise trade through lawful means. Moreover, we all stand to benefit from having access to the most widely used internet services at the lowest pricing model feasible. An existing market player is always at an advantage to newcomers, and this is for the better of the market at large. This principle is applicable to any business.

Why are we selectively questioning its validity only for the internet?

When every media outlet is suddenly in consensus over an issue, it becomes difficult to not ask ‘Why?’ When Net Neutrality becomes the most palatable term in the national news digestive system, every media outlet stands to gain from ‘debating’ the issue and reaching a pre-determined conclusion. It isn’t surprising then that every second article on this subject is accompanied by a graphic titled ‘If You Still Haven’t Made Up Your Mind About Net Neutrality, This Will’ showing either an YouTube buffering circle of doom or hyperbole of the likes of ‘Pay Rs. 500 for the next video’. Thanks for the condescension. Net neutrality is a complicated concept not everyone has the time, interest, or data-plan to investigate. A news agency can push copy by intentional removal of all nuances from the debate. Partial agreement kills the catchy headline. So we are left with ‘You’re with us or against morality’. That’s reassuring if your moral judgments are questionable.

Does that invalidate our need for a neutral internet? Lack of net neutrality can allow certain unfair trade practices. Take the issue of Comcast vs Netflix. Months back, when net neutrality was hot meat in the USA (which happens to be a democracy we are trying very hard to emulate), Netflix was being pressurised by national telecom provider Comcast to sign a direct deal for preferential access to their website. It was being pressurised by throttling bandwidth provided specifically to those Comcast customers accessing Netflix. In fact, the sharpest dips in download speed suspiciously coincided with the times when Netflix and Comcast were at the table settling this dispute out of court, as illustrated.

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(Source: Washington Post)

 

A neutral internet will prevent such extortion by ISPs. A internet with reasonable non-interference by ISPs is a prerequisite, but that is not sufficient justification for absolute neutrality of the internet itself. Zero-rating programs, though a violation of the net neutrality principle, are in no way unjust. Rather, they are rather very utilitarian. So when public outcry can rally FlipKart out of a contract without consideration of the benefits the public itself will miss out on as a result, it is worth considering whether we deserve the kind of praise our national dailies are showering upon us, and ask why they are doing so.

The TRAI regulation needs to be brought in to impose sufficient restrictions on ISPs to prevent outright malevolence. We have a flurry of legislation to prevent monopolistic and unfair trade practices meant to be amended and added to with changing times. We cannot ignore anomalies in search of absolutes. Broad strokes are for beginners.

If you want a debate over net neutrality, let’s debate it. Any other way, your headline is clickbait.

The net neutrality issue contains three themes: current affairs, confusion, and who we are. To debate these issues, I will be writing every week.

If your first impulse is to Share this article, you haven’t read closely enough. I want you to think about it before you do. Can you?