With Indian telecom regulator, TRAI’s recently issued consultation paper on the need to regulate OTT (Over The Top) services such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber amongst many others, the issue of net neutrality is now becoming dinner table talk (well, almost).
Net neutrality is the notion that internet service providers should treat all data on the network equally and not discriminate based on user, type of data, origin or destination of a communication and so on. The desired utopian outcome is an internet where an email by the United States’ President is at par with your music download, from the point of view of the Internet.
The absurdity of the analogy above is intentional. The way I see it, net neutrality is a beautiful outcome to work towards, but it can never really be achieved. The reason for this is that some kinds of data is always more popular than other kinds of data. YouTube is more popular than Slashdot because YouTube caters to a wider audience. People who may find Slashdot’s content boring and difficult to read might happily imbibe many of the ideas expressed on Slashdot when they are presented via a video on YouTube. Hence, the demand for YouTube is always going to be higher than Slashdot.
From the point of view of content, providers are simply intermediaries whose business is ferrying information. They typically neither produce nor really consume content themselves, but simply relay it between producers and consumers, charging both sides a fee, similar to a vegetable retailer who picks up the material from the producers and delivers it to the end user. As users reveal more and more about their preferences, providers start to learn which data paths are the most valuable. The simple law of supply and demand then operates to determine cost and price.
Seen from the point of view of providers, if they were to treat YouTube traffic at par with Slashdot traffic, it would be akin to a vegetable retailer selling potatoes and onions at the same price simply because they both happen to be vegetables. The indignation that many of my net neutrality supporting friends are no doubt feeling at this point is misplaced, simply because the notion that the Internet is a unified whole that must be governed as such, is in itself faulty. The Internet is simply a network of information supply chains and different parts of the supply chains are owned and operated by different players, who exert their influence to the extent that they can. Since there is no central authority managing the global Internet, net neutrality is simply world peace by another name.
All of this is not to say that we should simply shut up and put up. However, it is important to identify the issues at the underlying level and work on solving those, rather than complaining about symptomatic events. The debate about OTT services is symptomatic. The underlying issue is that of the ownership of networks themselves. If we, the public, wish to pay less for data, we should find better ways of using self owned and community owned media as an alternative to commercially owned media. This means, patronize online content providers who allow and encourage offline sharing of content. Use unlicensed communication media like WiFi and Bluetooth to share pictures and other heavy data. If you download something, try and save others the bandwidth by sharing it.
Support policy change that allows communities to set up and own more communication media, such as community radio and wireless mesh networks. Support users of these networks by promoting their work. These are real solutions. Those of us who wish to see a truly neutral net would do well to remember that the Internet was not created by following the rules, or protesting them – it was created by outgrowing them.