Net neutrality debate: Airtel Zero set to make internet a luxury for Indians

At the moment, there's a very real danger that certain Indian retailers and service operators could become gatekeepers.

By Deepanjana Pal

Last year, when the Internet turned 25-years-old, scientist Tim Berners-Lee said, "Our [online] rights are being infringed more and more on every side, and the danger is that we get used to it. So I want to use the 25th anniversary for us all to do that, to take the web back into our own hands and define the web we want for the next 25 years."

Berners-Lee may have been speaking for every Internet user out there — as of 2014, that's 40 percent of the world's population — but he's a little more important than you or me. He is, after all, the man who invented the world wide web and then opened it up to all of us, instead of selling it to a few companies and making millions for himself. So if there's anyone who should have a say on how the Internet is treated, it's Berners-Lee and here's what he had to say about net neutrality last year:

"If we want to maintain and enhance the Internet as an engine for growth, we must ensure that companies providing access should not be able to block, throttle, or otherwise restrict legal content and services of their users online, be it for commercial or political motivation. Of course, it is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping 'positive discrimination', such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers - able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day."

At the moment, there's a very real danger that certain Indian retailers and service operators could become gatekeepers. There's a proposal to introduce extra charges that will not only make the Internet significantly more expensive for consumers, but also give unfair advantages to companies like Flipkart that have opted to oppose net neutrality. That an e-retailer with humble online beginnings wants to strangle other web businesses is as ironic as it gets.

But this is not just an issue for businesses and entrepreneurs. It affects anyone who goes online. If net neutrality disappears, then there will be two ways of accessing the Internet: by the virtual equivalent of a crowded Central Railway train or by the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link.

Getting on the Sea Link means you pay more for something that you should be already getting by virtue of the taxes you pay: a road without potholes, on which traffic moves. That's precisely what will happen if certain sites are privileged because they have a tie-up with certain internet service providers. You'll be able to follow those links smoothly while accessing others will become a challenge. Pages will take forever to load and patience will be tried. In journalism, we've witnessed a variation of this in the non-virtual world. Certain newspapers would flex their muscle and ensure they're placed prominently in stalls. Sellers were given inducements to ensure competing publications were not on display or shoved almost out of sight.

Not just that, the proposal includes making the user pay for Internet in general and particular packages in addition to that basic fee. So you'd have to pay extra to use WhatsApp, access Facebook, watch a video on YouTube, and so on. Trai's consultation paper, which plans to allow telecom operators to block apps and websites in order to demand more money from consumers and businesses, could mark the end of the freedom to surf the web.

India's internet users have till 24 April to get their message across to Trai. It's fair to assume Trai is hoping no one will bother. Not only do users have to wade through a mind-numbingly long report in order to know how net neutrality is being threatened, Trai has, in effect, set an exam for those who'd like to take the body to task. You've got to read that report and then answer 20 questions that Trai has posed for anyone supporting net neutrality.

Fortunately, India has a great tradition of cheating sophisticatedly and Save The Internet has come up with a way in which you can answer Trai's 20 questions with literally two clicks. It's drafted the email you need to send in all the boring detail required. All you have to do is paste it and hit send.

The basic question at the heart of the net neutrality debate is in the nature of the Internet. Is it a luxury? If so, then there's justification for it to be more expensive for consumers.

On the other hand, if it is a utility, then it becomes the state's duty to ensure it's easily available and affordable, like water and electricity. Rewind several decades (or travel out of the metropolises and go to certain parts of the country today), and electricity would be far from widespread. At one point in time, it reached about as many Indian homes as the Internet today, but the fact that a vast number of people used and use alternative sources of energy doesn't mean that electricity is considered a luxury.

The internet performs many, many functions today. You can use it to pay bills, do homework, file taxes, enrol for academic courses, awww at baby animals, watch pornography, read articles in publications that are not physically available in India, express yourself, troll people, — the list is endless. This is part of the reason that it should be easy to access and not booby-trapped by retailers and internet providers.

Most critically though, the Internet fills every user with something that everyday life offers all too infrequently: a sense of wonder. Even if someone is intent upon using the Internet to be as narrow-minded as is humanly possible, chances are that something or the other will slip through that armour of determined ignorance and show that person a sight (or site) that is beyond their imagination.

What makes the Internet so utterly and entirely beautiful is that it isn't a monumental thing. It's being made and added to with every moment that we spend online. Each one of us fashions it with every photo we put up, every word we write, every link we click and every bit of information we add to its already vast database. If net neutrality is lost, retailers will — or try to — decide what shape the Internet takes.

Right now, the Internet is growing and expanding vigorously. That's our energy at work, the energy that comes from more than 40 percent of the world's population going online and discovering something they'd never imagined or expected. It could be something as personal as a virtual hug or as magnificent as the one of the Hubble Space Telescope's dazzling images from space.

If companies like Flipkart, who have opposed net neutrality in India, could guarantee us that sense of wonder every single time we visit the company's website, perhaps there would have been some weak justification for demanding more money from consumers and attempting to strangle the competition. But the wonder of the Internet is in its diversity, its unpredictability and its freedom. No one can deliver that or put a price tag on it.

It's ironic to think that when Berners-Lee put forward the idea of opening up the Internet to the public, the initial concern was that the technology would prove to be too complicated for non-scientists. In 1995, less than 1 percent of the world's population was using the Internet and today, that's risen to more than 40 percent. Compared to countries like China (46 percent) and Japan (86 percent) , India actually has very few people using the Internet. Only about 20 percent of our population has access to the Internet. Even Nigeria has a larger percentage of its population going online (37.5 percent).

If we give up net neutrality now, that means less than 20 percent of the country will be able to access ideas freely. That's not just less people ogling at cat gifs, but more people remaining limited by geography. Without net neutrality, the Internet will become a luxury and that would be a bitter shame for India where fields like education and entrepreneurship desperately need the Internet's versatility and freedom.

Speaking on the occasion of the web's 25th birthday last year, Tim Berners-Lee, who literally gave away the internet for free to the world, asked just one thing of all of us from all over the world who use the Internet.

"Do me a favour," he said. "Fight for it for me."

We're trying, Tim.

Go to and email Trai before 24 April.

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.