Many people are familiar with this scenario: you go online to stream a video or two. But buffering takes forever. You are forced to exit the site in frustration without watching anything.
Sometimes it is down to poor network from your internet service provider. Or it could be your ISP throttling the internet speed for that particular site. This is one of the issues net neutrality is trying to address.
In broad yet simple terms, net neutrality, also known as Open Internet, is about giving equal access to all legal internet content to consumers by the ISPs without favoring a particular content provider or requiring consumers to pay more money to access some sites or content.
Let’s go back to the speed throttling issue to explain it a bit further. If the reason you could not enjoy the video streaming was because of speed throttling, the solution is to pay more money to the ISP. According to net neutrality legislation, this sort of discrimination based on pricing is wrong.
Look at it this way, chances are, you must have paid money to the content providers to access their videos online as well as paid money for internet access to the ISP. You have paid your dues. You should have the right to access anything without further billing.
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The net neutrality battle front
There are three sides to the net neutrality issue. On one side are the proponents of net neutrality. On the other side are the ISPs and their investors who are against net neutrality. Caught in the middle is the regulator that must try to satisfy both sides.
The proponents of net neutrality
These are mainly online activists. Their argument is simple enough. If consumers are made to pay more money for certain types of internet content by the ISPs, the practice would disenfranchise the poor. Ultimately, only people with money would enjoy the full benefits of the internet.
But if there is no discrimination to the amount charged to access the internet, the poor as well as the rich would be treated equally. The fear from proponents of net neutrality is this: the already wide gulf between the poor and the rich in the society should not be extended to the internet which is basically about freedom to access information and free speech.
The anti-net neutrality camp
These are the ISPs and investors who need to make as much money as possible from the business of providing internet access to the public. Their point of view is compelling enough.
According to them, heavy users of the internet need to be charged more for the privilege. Without that price discrimination in place, further investment and development of the internet would be slowed down.
The only way to get that money to further make the internet better is to charge heavy users more money than the casual users.
Furthermore, they argue that since ISPs are private businesses, nobody has the right to tell them how they cost their services. They should be left alone to charge what they feel is right.
The regulators are caught in the middle. On the one hand, they must try and protect the interest of consumers from exploitation by ISPs. On the other hand, they must make sure any regulation or policy does not kill business initiative in the society.
So they walk a tight rope where they must balance the interest of both sides without seeming to be unfair to any side. So far though, especially in the United States of America where the net neutrality battle is fiercest, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is finding it difficult to do right by both sides.
The latest net neutrality laws announced a few years ago was lampooned by both sides as inimical to their interests. This is after years of talking to all interest groups before coming out with the regulations.
Does net neutrality actually help the poor?
Asking if net neutrality actually helps the poor looks like a precursor to admitting it doesn’t. The issue is not that straight forward though. Take the case of Free Basics in India and elsewhere
Facebook introduced Free Basics in India in the first quarter of 2015. The aim was to give the poor in India’s rural communities access to the internet even on a poor network without paying a dime.
The catch though is this: only certain websites can be accessed through Free Basics. Access to other websites would require one to pay the regular data charges. One of the websites that can be accessed for free on the Free Basics bouquet was a stripped down version of Facebook.
Critics immediately went to town about how the Free Basics program violated the spirit of net neutrality or the open Internet. Making some services free while others were not was discriminatory as it gave undue advantage to some sites like Facebook.
Facebook argued it was a humanitarian project to help the poor and ultimately help the country’s internet penetration. Facebook said people who used free basics are likely to later pay money to ISPs to get access to more content later.
After a year of battle between Facebook and the critics (a battle that cost Facebook hundreds of millions in adverts drumming up support for Free Basics), the country’s regulators finally banned Free Basics in India. According to them, providing free access to only some sites was discriminatory and unfair and against the spirit of net neutrality.
Facebook’s Free Basics vs net neutrality around the world
In countries like Nigeria where Free Basics was introduced last year, nobody is talking about net neutrality, open Internet or discriminatory practices by the likes of Facebook. The citizens, especially the poor and young people who don’t have enough money to pay for exorbitant data charges, see Free Basics as some sort of savior.
Even with the limited number of websites they can access through the program, they feel it is better than nothing. What about the sites blocked out of Free Basics? None of them are bothered. At least, not publicly.
So at what point would people in countries like Nigeria begin to see the harmful aspects of initiatives like Free Basics? Do people in these countries even think of net neutrality or the open Internet?
So far, the evidence is not encouraging: clearly, it is only the elites and the seriously educated that are aware and bothered about how programs like Free Basics can hurt them in the long run.
But then again, perhaps, net neutrality concerns is just another exotic issue only people in the West have time for. However, this is one battle whose outcome would seriously affect the rest of the world. Which is why it is perplexing that an issue as fundamental as net neutrality is not a part of public discourse in most countries outside the West.