Ensure neutral internet space

Ensure neutral internet space

President Barack Obama’s firm support for the idea of net neutrality, expressed in a recent speech, has given a thrust to the idea which is yet to receive adequate attention and full legal endorsement. The debate on it has become more extensive in the last one year with internet activists highlighting its importance in the expanding world of digital communications.

In simple terms, net neutrality stands for the principle that all data traffic on internet should be treated equally and there should not be any discrimination and differential treatment on any basis. Obama has called upon the US communications regulator, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to lay down the strongest possible rules to enforce the principle. Many others like Tim Burners-Lee, who created the worldwide web, and Vincent Cerf, father of the internet, have also advocated it. But it has run into stiff opposition from service providers, big business and the political right in the US.

Internet service providers are known to block content, slowdown traffic or restrict access to small and ordinary consumers to facilitate fast track use of the net by bigger consumers. The implications are serious and can even have a major impact on the economy which is becoming increasing dependent on its digital efficiency. An unequal internet regime may be used by bigger companies to smother smaller ones and new entrants, to hurt competition and to force consumers to buy what they do not want.

The net is considered as a democratic and equal place with no special rights and privileges to anyone. It is especially empowering for individuals. Those who want net neutrality to be enforced by law, compare the internet to a public utility like electricity and a natural resource like water to which everyone has fair and equal rights. It is also like a high way where no one is discriminated against.

The US FCC might take time to create a legal framework to enforce the principle. It has to contend with strongly entrenched interests and some of its own past positions before taking a final decision. India should also formulate laws which ensure an open and fair internet system which is equal to all consumers. Broadband use is fast increasing in the country and it will soon overtake the US to have the second largest number of users after China.

There should be a level playing field in cyber space where everyone and every entity get the same opportunities and treatment. This is also important in the global market place where Indian companies have to compete with stronger multinational companies with bigger clout. The government and India’s telecom regulator should start moving in the direction of ensuring a neutral internet space.