The answer, regrettably, is we the consumers, the individual net users. Surprised? Unfortunately, it is true. Net neutrality is an abstract and nebulous subject, made further confusing by the arguments of the various warring groups—the content and application providers, the mobile/broadband network providers, the ISPs, the activists, etc—each with their own strong agenda.
Although a decades-old topic, debates about net neutrality increased ever since the well-known Netflix-Comcast dispute, when Netflix alleged that large ISPs were slowing down their traffic to make them pay more. This was shown, subsequently, with data and evidence, to be completely incorrect by analyst Dan Rayburn of Frost & Sullivan. Nevertheless, the debate swelled.
What is net neutrality? Essentially, the proponents of this concept, chiefly the content providers, are demanding that all types of net traffic are given the same access, the same treatment, the same terms and conditions. They ask that there should be no prioritisation of traffic based on its source, content or importance and that the commercial terms to them should be the same. Sounds reasonable? However, probing deeper, it does appear rather strange. It is like demanding the same speed limit or same toll charges or facilities for travel on dirt roads as on expressways.
Wouldn’t one of the two categories of users inevitably be the loser if that ‘equality’ is implemented?
We, the users of the net in India, are heavily dependent for access on mobile service that is crucially dependent on spectrum, which we know is in acute short supply here. As consumers, we would, therefore, seek the most appropriate QoS and the best user experience depending on the app we are using at the time—YouTube, WhatsApp, browsing, etc. Obviously, therefore, since spectrum is involved, we would need the best quality traffic management to get the desired results. We seek the traffic management that would minimise the incidence and impacts of congestion so that we get the online experience despite the challenge of many concurrent users. We want that delay-sensitive services such as voice calls, online gaming and video streaming keep working smoothly. A one-size-fits-all treatment of traffic would be, quite clearly, to our disadvantage. We benefit from innovation and realise that traffic management actually helps provide an essential platform for that and have made feasible the development of specialised services such as IPTV, outside broadcast services, medical monitoring, transport automation, etc.
Without traffic management, wouldn’t we also be defenceless against online threats such as spam, malware and child abuse content?
It is also argued that the net has always been a neutral zone area and should be kept so. No greater fiction existed. In fact, as we all know, the founding fathers of the net always envisioned prioritisation and management of traffic as part of the internet protocol. It is a fact that the internet’s communications protocol, the TCP/IP, was never dumb or neutral. As pointed out by Douglas Haas in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, IP packets—the ‘envelopes’ that carry the actual content—reserve space in those envelopes to help identify how network devices should process those packets. Is this ‘neutral’ behaviour?
Prepared for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, the original TCP/IP standards clearly treated high precedence traffic as more important than other traffic and defined unambiguously, information flags for prioritisation of packets travelling on TCP/IP networks. Even the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) clearly stipulates different standards for different types of content. Are all these facts a framework for net neutrality?
For the public, the use of mobile internet services for mission-critical applications is gaining importance exponentially these days. Police, fire and emergency medical services (Public Protection and Disaster Relief or PPDR) have critical need for broadband. At the time of a natural or man-made disaster, the traffic must get through. If it is impossible to prioritise PPDR traffic, wouldn’t extremely high costs inevitably fall on the public?
As Douglas Haas concludes, “Net neutrality regulation, in the direct form of neutrality mandates or in the indirect form of a ban on concrete harms, will discourage consumers and strip consumers of their power to shape service offerings … Tomorrow’s networks will need a combination of simplicity and complexity, openness and differentiation.”
Economic evidence does not support prophylactic net regulation. In fact, net neutrality regulation and the so-called ‘smart data pricing’ would only unfairly transfer costs from the commercial content and application providers to us—the end-users. Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Washington DC, observed that “the goal of public policy should not be to simply optimise outcomes within existing network architectures but to encourage the development of entirely new network architectures, platforms and providers. Net neutrality mandates would sacrifice long-term innovation for short-term minimal gains … could open the door to a great deal of potential ‘gaming’ of the regulatory system and allow firms to … hobble competitors.” This is obviously a consumer welfare-reducing measure. In the opinion of the undersigned, in an extremely dynamic and competitive access provider market, such as ours in India, net neutrality debates are increasingly irrelevant and all that we consumers need is openness and transparency from all types of service providers. Not a net neutrality diktat but a balanced consumer-friendly approach.
The author is honorary fellow, Institution of Engineering & Technology, London, and a consultant on policy & regulatory affairs