The net neutrality debate burst into the spotlight when American network provider Comcast was accused of selectively slowing down uploads and downloads to certain internet services. The term net neutrality means ‘equality in internet traffic’. The concept has since become the topic of intense debates in corporate and tech circles, even featuring in President Obama’s campaign speeches.
Net neutrality supporters believe that internet providers should not have control over internet applications and services used by their subscribers. Proponents believe that internet providers could use control over subscriber content to create a ‘false market’ for services that would otherwise have been bundled in. Let’s consider an example to demonstrate the way this works. Consider an Internet Service Provider(ISP) which provides an internet plan A, with a monthy subscription fee of Rs. 1000 for unlimited internet, with the exception of services like Skype and FaceTime. The same provider also has a plan B, which costs Rs. 1500 and additionally provides these services, thus creating a ‘false market’ for those services, because in a neutral system, all these services should come bundled in. There have been reports of ISPs blocking certain third party applications to eliminate competition for services they themselves provide. Another way providers could exploit their control over the so called internet ‘pipeline’ is by striking deals with entertainment and other internet application manufacturers such that their content reaches consumers faster. Let us consider two online gaming providers A and B, and an internet provider C. Company C has agreed to a contract with online gaming service A, where users of C’s internet services receive faster speeds when gaming using service A, thereby intentionally pushing service B out of the competition. Such abuse of power by internet providers could endanger the unrestricted internet landscape around the world, and is a major cause for concern around the globe.
Let us now take a look at the other side of the argument. Some people believe that we are not yet ready for regulation in favor of net neutrality, stating that the grey areas about the exact definition of net neutrality must first be ironed out, since net neutrality could be taken to mean ‘equal speeds to all subscribers at the same prices’, which is then a violation of free market policy. Many critics believe that there would have to be an effective regulator for internet services, which would efficiently handle all ambiguity arising out of the legal framework for net neutrality in the future.
The debate has raged on for a few years now, and technology gurus are now looking for a middle route, a proverbial ‘third way’, which would solve the problem using a milder approach, one that requires less of a structural overhaul, and hopefully bury this debate permanently.