Social media timelines these days are abuzz with updates on the fight for freedom of the Internet. Some of you may have even come across requests to sign e-petitions and shoot e-mails to ensure continued free access to the World Wide Web through mobile devices.
But what is the controversy all about? Why has it erupted now? How does it impact you?
Rediff.com gives you a lowdown on the net neutrality issue that is today part of the national discourse.
What is net neutrality after all?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
What's the big deal about it?
Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to devise new schemes to charge you more for access and services, making it harder for you to communicate online. The Internet could come to resemble cable TV, where gatekeepers exert control over where you go and what you see.
Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to block content and speech they don’t like, reject apps that compete with their own offerings, and prioritize Web traffic (reserving the fastest loading speeds for the highest bidders and sticking everyone else with the slowest).
There's a big debate on this going on in the United States, but why in India?
The problem began with Indian telecom players like Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance woke up and realised that users were replacing traditional texting with WhatsApp or Viber and traditional network calling with apps such as Skype (also called Over-The-Top services).
They now want the right to charge what they want, when they want and how they want. In effect, if Airtel doesn’t like YouTube, but wants to push its own video app Wynk, it wants the right to offer that for free, while charging you a bomb to access YouTube.
Reliance already has a Facebook-driven scheme called Internet.org, where you can access Bing for free, but you have to pay to access Google; and you have access to BabaJob for free, while you have to pay for Naukri.com.
Read about the controversial Airtel Zero idea HERE
How is this going to affect me?
Well, you pay the price for telecom majors choosing to focus on network building (earning huge sums of money in the process) rather than focussing on building applications that OTT services like Skype and WhatsApp have milked to the maximum.
Now, if the OTTs don’t pay what telcos want them to, your messages will deliver slower and videos will take longer to download.
Your ISP may charge you more for services like YouTube because they consume more mobile bandwidth.
Also, according to an analysis in the Times of India, if telcos have their way the Internet as we know it will not exist. Instead of free access, there could be "package plans" for consumers.
For example, if you pay Rs 500, you will only be able to access websites based in India. To access international websites, you may have to pay a more. Or maybe there can be different connection speed for different type of content, depending on how much you are paying for the service and what "add-on package" you have bought.
Is there a law that can stop this?
No. Net neutrality is a new concept that has arisen because of changes to technology over the last few years.
The Information Technology Act, 2000 does not prohibit companies from throttling their service in accordance with their business interests.
Depending on how this saga plays out the government may or may not consider amending the telecom laws in future.
What about the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India?
As of now, the watchdog seems to be barking up the wrong tree.
Besides the fact that it sent out a 117-page discussion paper filled with jargon, its own observations on the issue have been criticised by many as leaning heavily towards the telecom lobby.
TRAI has said that mobile applications providing free internet-based calls and messaging services can be a threat to individual and national security.
TRAI says, 'Most applications can trace the user's location for underlying processes (such as GPS apps finding the nearest restaurants). This information may be used to commit a crime, or the location itself may be the target of a crime. Such threats can impact the nation's security and financial health.'
It also says that OTT applications are eating into revenues of telecom operators and their revenue loss will also lower various government revenues.
What are the biggest concerns about Telcos calling the shots?
* Telecom operators could discriminate against certain types of content and political opinions.
* Could hurt consumers and diminish innovation in apps and content spaces.
* Discriminatory pricing proposals could raise anti-competitive concerns.
* Access networks, if left unrestrained by non-discrimination rules, have incentives to favour their own services, applications, and content and to kill competing services.
* A cartel of telecom operators could degrade traditional Internet access to force apps and content providers to use the telecom operators new "premium" service (without the degrading of access).
So what’s being done about this situation?
A group of Internet users has started a campaign asking the public to send submissions to TRAI, expressing their grief and discomfort about how telecom carriers are snatching away free Internet from them. Over 3 lakh e-mail petitions have already been sent via www.savetheinternet.in .
Comedy group AIB released a video on YouTube explaining the importance of net neutrality in India, and why users need to support it. In less than two days, the video got nearly a million views
Political parties too have been voicing their concerns. The Congress party has called for the committee set up by the telecom ministry on the issue be disbanded when the Centre had powers under Section 25 of the TRAI Act to issue any direction to the authority in public interest.