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Net neutrality and the privacy debate

June 27, 2018 10:19 IST

Indian policy-makers must see the choices before them as economic, not moral, ones, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

The average citizen who looks at the Internet as something that made it easy and costless for him to communicate with his friends and loved ones through e-mail and messenger must surely be wondering why when he opens his newspaper or goes to his favourite news Web site he is confronted with stories that argue for or against 'Net neutrality', 'privacy' and similar complicated issues.

What, he must surely be wondering, is all this fuss about?

You go to that familiar Web site where you get an update on the new movies in town and pop comes a message: 'This Web site uses cookies for Web analytics and marketing purposes. By continuing to use this Web site without disabling cookies in your Web browser you agree to save cookies to your hard drive'.

You eagerly open your e-mail and see this unbelievably cheap offer from a shopping site and pops up another warning: 'We have put efforts into ensuring that the message is error and virus-free. Unfortunately, full security of the e-mail cannot be ensured as, despite our efforts, the data included in e-mails could be infected, intercepted, or corrupted.'

'Therefore, the recipient should check the e-mail for threats with proper software, as the sender does not accept liability for any damage inflicted by viewing the content of this e-mail'.

You start wondering why the world has suddenly become such a dangerous place. Is this something wrong that you have done, you wonder?

Can, as some of these serious voiced editorials say, a political party use the data, in the form you filled up to use it, to manipulate your mind to make you vote for it, against your will, in the upcoming election?

 

To help you make sense of all these dire warnings, dear reader, here is a tourist's guide to the Internet industry landscape and the players who are battling to control various parts of it.

First, there are the telecom companies who provide the pipes that carry data from your personal computer or smartphone to other personal computers and smartphones.

Then there are companies that spend time and money to create and provide you Web services such as search (to help you locate other sites on the Internet), or chat (to let you chat with your friends using text or voice), or content companies that give you news and movie reviews and the like and e-commerce services that bring you products and service such as air ticket bookings.

All these types of businesses happily co-existed in the first decade of the Internet. Then came fun and games.

Some Web service companies with plenty of money in their war chest went to the telecom companies in their area and told them, 'I will pay you extra money if you carry only my chat service and not any other chat service.'

Telecom companies, eager for more profits, jumped at these offers.

But, instantly, other financially less endowed Web services companies howled in protest, saying that this practice is something akin to, for example, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation accepting money from a car manufacturer in return for ensuring that only that manufacturer's cars could ply on Mumbai roads.

The Internet should be 'neutral' like Mumbai roads are neutral to the brand of cars plying on them.

This is the Net neutrality battle.

The Web services companies have their own struggles.

Up until this year, they could go to advertisers and lure them away from spending in print newspapers and magazines by telling them that the companies have specific data about the name, age, location and interests of their users, which could be used to precisely target advertising.

These arguments worked and a sizeable share of advertising money shifted from other media such as print and television to Web service companies.

This brought the outcry of 'privacy' and the position that data provided by a user may be used to 'target' her/him for selling products or services s/he may not need.

The terms of engagement in this battle between the telecom companies and the Web services companies vary by country.

In countries where both the telecom companies and the Web services companies are in the private sector (the United States is one such case), the battleground is the government regulator and cries about Net neutrality and privacy fill the air attempting to draw in various other segments of public opinion to their respective side.

Thus, during the Obama administration, the Net neutrality forces used that word as a shorthand for the idea that rich and poor, the start-ups or established giants should be able to use the Internet as a level playing field.

But with the advent of the Trump administration and its free-market ideas, the Net neutrality diktats have been allowed to lapse.

The Trump administration policy-makers take the view that telecom companies need a free hand in charging carriage fees because only then will they be able to afford to invest in the physical infrastructure to make America internationally competitive and create jobs.

In countries where the telecom company is the State and the Web services companies are private (China is an example), there is no hint of these Net neutrality and privacy debates.

Europe is a case by itself.

Europeans like Tim Berners Lee invented the Web, but Europe does not have a single world-scale Web service company in the private or public sector.

Could this be the reason why Europe has taken such a strong position on privacy and Net neutrality? These stringent positions create a tiny opening for European companies to make their presence felt in Web services.

But what will continue to work against these otherwise super-talented European entrepreneurs is the absence of a local venture capital system and the language divisions across European countries that make it difficult to build scale up.

What is stoking these ideological battles (that is what the Net neutrality and privacy battles truly are, though they come in the guise of technological choices), are headline-capturing events such as the alleged use of Facebook data by planners for the Republican party to swing the US presidential elections.

This is presented as yet another reason why privacy laws must be strictly enforced.

In India, a Europe-like situation prevails.

But hopefully, Indian policy-makers who are weighing what stance to take on the Net neutrality and privacy issues will see the choices before them in their true light: An economic and ideological choice about the relative role of telecom and Web service companies, Indian and international, and not a moral one.

Ajit Balakrishnan, founder and CEO of Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider, A Chronicle of the Information Age.
You can reach him at ajitb@rediffmail.com

Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com