The internet is a vast, unfathomable source of information. There exist over 1 billion websites today, with approximately 1, 40,000 new websites created every day. This gives us access to more information than our ancestors would have ever imagined. The internet connects you to the most important as well as the most quirky things on this planet – don’t know how to describe your emotion? Here is the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Wonder how your income compares to Warren Buffet’s? Penny Stocks will tell you.
The beauty of the internet lies in this: our ability to access the most inconsequential information to the most vital pieces of information with equal ease. We don’t have to wait longer for certain websites to load as compared to others. We don’t have to pay more to be able to view certain websites. The internet is an egalitarian forum, giving its users access to content previously unparalleled, in terms of quality and quantity. This is the basic concept of net neutrality.
Now imagine a world where only a small, selected number of websites from this vast universe are available to us, albeit free. For every website falling outside the listed ones, we will have to pay. The speed will vary; the non-listed websites will load slowly. The internet will no longer be equal-for-all: it will be a hierarchy of free to the most expensive websites. This is what Airtel-zero, Reliance, other Internet Service Providers and most recently Facebook, through its Free Basics campaign, are working towards.
The internet, since its creation, has been a platform for innovation. It has seen companies grow and create millionaires, simply by its ability to reach out to billions. One such example would be Facebook. Facebook started as a small network to emerge as the largest social network in the world today. Why? Because the internet let it. It did not require extra payment to load a new website called Facebook. It did not load Facebook slower because it was not ‘basic.’ And therein lies the irony of the current situation: Facebook’s attempt at regulating the very platform whose competitive and democratic nature let it grow.
Net neutrality allows this level-playing field where websites compete with one another solely on the basis of content. Competitive environments have been linked to growth, innovation, and greater consumer satisfaction. Free Basics and other campaigns against net neutrality will create a restrictive market of sorts, where some websites are easily available to the public as compared to others, and will consequently draw higher traffic. After all, who wants to pay for something when there exists a free alternative? Imagine the adverse impact it will have on an economy that prides itself for boosting the growth of start-ups.
On a more individualistic note, net neutrality gives us the freedom to be who we are. The content we consume on the internet is an expression of our virtual identity, a phenomenon that has been rising in importance in today’s digital age. If the internet is truly a basic democratic right, should it not allow individuals the freedom to exercise choice without making them pay more for it?
And most importantly, Free Basics and other campaigns give an external agency the authority to decide what is and what is not basic. Facebook will have the right to decide the websites we can view for free and those we must pay for, making Facebook the power hub of the internet. The internet, which has been a compelling force against authoritarianism through free and immediate access, will no longer possess the alacrity it previously did. Websites will have to go through the procedure of becoming ‘partners’ with Facebook for their website to gain free access.
The case put forth by Facebook in support of Free Basics is this: it will provide internet access to those who have none, in synch with Modi’s Digital India programme. But it will simultaneously give Facebook the opportunity to increase its user base by millions, potentially protecting it from competition from any quarter. Interestingly, majority of our population already considers Facebook the entire entity of the internet experience, with an overwhelming 58% responding to the statement, ‘Facebook is the internet’ in affirmative.
The issue of net neutrality is unlikely to reach a complete resolution soon, given the complexities that underlie it. But it is important to consider the effect a restrained, throttled internet will have, even if it is available to everyone. Surely there are ways of making the Internet available to everyone without compromising on its fundamental virtues. USA found a way through it, successfully enforcing net neutrality. It is now time for India step up and stay true to its virtue of being the world’s largest democracy: giving its people the same equality in the virtual world as it promises in reality.