Beyond 'free' and 'neutral': An Internet policy for India

Beyond 'free' and 'neutral': An Internet policy for India

That a lot is at stake in the ongoing framing of Internet-related policy in India is evident from the sudden deluge of content with contrasting positions on the recently uploaded Trai Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services in almost all forms of media, traditional and new.

Most of these positions seem to invoke either of the two seemingly innocuous but, very powerful terms – ‘free’ and ‘neutral’. While one set of arguments are in favour of a ‘free’ Internet, implying the absence of a direct monetary charge for accessing the Internet or parts thereof, the others are framed around the concept of Internet as a ‘neutral’ carrier of content.

Both these positions, however, seem to be in agreement when it comes to the impact of Internet access in improving the living conditions of the income-poor and other socially marginal population groups. For advocating a particular policy prescription, they mainly invoke different aspects of the prevailing dominant global discourse where Internet is considered a neutral technology, paraded as an outcome of broad-based participation and, therefore, along with other information and communication technologies (ICTs), the best available means to solve health, education, employment and other similar development concerns of countries such as India. This, despite increasing evidence that does not always support such claims unequivocally.

Evolution of the Internet and its unprecedented proliferation over the past few decades is often seen as a reflection of its design logic that has allowed more and more application and content providers to participate in its production, akin to a ‘free’ democracy (where every citizen has the same [theoretical] right to participate in governance).

The fact that most of the content on the Internet continues to be in English and that most of the application and technology providers come from high-income countries in the Americas and Europe  – as per a recent International Telecommunication Union report, 80.4 per cent of the total Internet domain registrations were restricted to these regions in 2013 – is, many a time, overlooked as a temporary aberration which will vanish when more and more people from low-income countries are provided access to the Internet.

There are other important points of privileged access in Internet governance, such as in assigning unique global identifiers and in deciding standards and protocols. But these are considered necessary to ensure the operational stability of Internet, and have only recently been subjected to a more open public debate.

Neutrality of technology, including of the ICTs and the Internet, is often invoked when deterministic claims are to be made about its effects, of the type that ‘an increased Internet penetration will lead to improved health and education indicators’. This view considers the nature of technology and the direction of change it can lead to as unproblematic or pre-determined, often subject to an inner technical-logic (as Robin Williams and David Edge point out in their oft-cited 1996 article on social shaping of technology) – hence, the notion of neutrality.

What it does not consider is that the production and use of technology is a social process, influenced by individual dispositions and social structures. A number of choices are made, both during the production and use of technology, many of which are governed by cultural, political, economic and other institutional factors.

Socially shaped technology
The current debate about the way Internet should be provided in India, for example, captures many such factors, all of which have a potential to influence the way Internet production and use could get shaped in the country.

The form, direction of change or outcomes are not taken as a given when technology is seen as socially shaped. Here, the inquiry process is explicitly concerned with the various ways in which social structures and individual agencies influence design and use of technology.

When Internet is being promoted as a democratising technology with a potential to address complex development and governance challenges in lower income countries of the world, adopting deterministic and unidirectional claims about its effects seems a bit out of place.

In its present form and with its historical production process strongly embedded in specific contexts, the Internet embodies socio-cultural and political values that may often not make much sense in many of the lower-income regions of the world.

The state-of-the-art in global development thought is moving away from Rostow’s stages-of-economic-growth model and is now more appreciative of local contextual variation and diversity in charting national and regional development

There is no reason to provide a privileged position to ICTs and the Internet, despite the significant changes they are bringing in the everyday lives of millions of individuals across the world, by not subjecting them to critical scrutiny when they are to be adopted as key drivers of national and regional development policies.

Use of terms such as ‘free’ and ‘neutral’ when talking about the Internet can lead to a certain degree of reification which could prevent a proper appreciation of its constitution and affordances, thereby affecting the way it could be developed and deployed to tackle problems in healthcare, education or livelihoods, all of which display a strong affinity to local contextual factors.

A less deterministic approach to designing public policies related to ICTs and the Internet, will not take the effects as given but see it as an outcome of an engagement process involving increased participation of a greater number of people, both during its production and use.

Along with policies that are concerned with improving Internet access to all sections of our society, it is equally important to promote local production and design capacities so that Internet, and other forms of ICTs, are embedded and more reflective of social structures and relationships that are of greater value to us as a country.

This will also resonate well with the ideas of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Make for India’ that the present Central government is actively promoting.

(The writer is faculty at the Centre for IT and Public Policy, International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru)