Monday, April 20, 2015

The Internet Needs You.

I remember one afternoon during my vacations just after my 4th grade rather distinctly. I sat in front of a computer in my parents' room, and after following a Google search result, landed on a website that played the opening song to a then popular Hindi television show. I patiently waited while the Dial-Up connection from MTNL streamed the song, and I kept playing it, on repeat. I kept listening to the song, and smiling, and laughing, and dancing, while my mom looked at me in amusement. This was when I found the internet and realized how amazing it was.

I am sure I started using the internet before that. Hell, I had my first e-mail ID before that! And yet, this was my moment of glory. This, was when I had found the internet, and I was smitten. Little did I know, then, that this was the start of one of the most amazing, informative, intriguing and personal relationships of my life. My relationship with the internet.

I'm sure each one of us that uses the internet has one such old, fond memory of using the internet and how it came to be a part of you that it is today.

Fast forward to today, and I spend all of my wake hours in doing something or the other on the internet. I refer to and take help of the internet, for the smallest to the biggest things. I have a bunch of social media accounts. I manage my own, and a few other websites. And, most importantly, I classify my internet expenses as utilities.

Over the course of the last 40 years, internet has gone from being a lab experiment to a luxury to a necessity. The internet, through all these years, on a daily basis, has helped us communicate, connect, share, read, write, see, dream, refer, learn, explore, interpret, and grow. But now, today, the internet needs you.

If you've been reading recently, on the internet and off it, there's a major debate and campaign going on in India by the name of 'Save the internet' used liberally alongwith a term called 'Net neutrality'. For everything that the internet has enabled me to do, I consider it my responsibility to help people understand why this campaign, and by extension net neutrality matters. The following is, broadly, my answer to all the questions about these that I've frequently been asked, over the last few weeks.

Net neutrality is a concept that everything on the internet is equal, that everything you browse on the internet be subjected to the same rules, and delivered with the same speed, by those that provide you internet, your ISPs (MTNL, BSNL, Hathway, etc.) and mobile telecom providers (Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance, etc.). It is about choice. I can access Google or Yahoo or Microsoft's email services. I can refer to Wikipedia or perform computations on WolframAlpha. I can be amazed with Nat Geo's travel diaries or plan my own with TripAdvisor. I can connect with friends with Facebook or can learn about experiences on Quora. I can read micro-updates on Twitter or watch cat GIFs on Tumblr. I can watch baby videos on YouTube, or watch pornography. I can listen to songs on Rdio, or listen to podcasts. I can download free software from SourceForge or download pirated software. I can read and be updated on news and current affairs, or I can be excited about the next big thing in technology. Or I can not use any of these websites and use a whole bunch of others to do something entirely different. I can choose to do anything on the internet, and have it delivered to me, at the same cost, and the same speed. Choice is what the internet and net neutrality, both, essentially stand for.

Since its inception, internet was built on freedom. It is a medium that can  be used by anyone in the world no matter where they are from, who they are, or what their beliefs are. It was never meant to be discriminated or divided into factions. The same websites available to me in India, would be available to anyone in U.S.A. or a village in Africa. The same content, if you visit the same website, anywhere.

But, the telecom cartels over the world, with their ever growing greed to earn more and exploit customers a little more, are trying to infringe upon this very essence of internet by either or all of the following mechanisms:
 
a) Charging the content providers: The most common and popular method that entails charging content providers (generally, websites and apps like Netflix, YouTube, etc.) to provide their data at a faster rate than the data from other, including competitors' websites, to the customer.
b) Charging the customer: If the internet providers ask for an extra price for you and me to be able to access a certain part of the internet. For example, an extra cost if you want to use Google's Play Store and / or connect your Android phone to the internet, while iPhone's App Store and Windows Phone's Windows Store get a free / cheaper access.
c) Charging both, the customer and the content providers: Just club both (a) and (b)!

To aid the same exploitation, TRAI, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, plans to institute a rule by which the telecom operators and ISPs get the liberty to create a walled internet, by using both (a) and (b). The new rules proposed by TRAI are ambiguous enough and allow for both.

I'm sure you must have heard the phrase 'Airtel Zero' and ignored it as another marketing ploy. Well, it isn't. Airtel, India's biggest telecom provider recently announced a new plan called 'Airtel Zero' by which a content provider can pay for the data consumed by the customer while using that app / service. This reduces or makes zero the cost of using the app / service for the customer.

My dad often tells me, "There is no free lunch in this world." And in this case, it sure holds true. This free data, is at the cost of freedom to choose. If a messaging service like Hike subscribes to this plan and pays Airtel, Hike can essentially pay for the data you use while using the app, and because that leads you to a lower cost, you'd stop using WhatsApp. But, you'd also never use any other app / service, even if it were better, because you're getting to use this for free. Or, if Reliance Jio enters the market, and makes chatting over its app Jio Chat, free.

Today, while most Indians WhatsApp, most Chinese use WeChat, most Japanese use Line, most Koreans use KakaoChat. Would this liberty be possible in a world where companies like Google or Facebook, which compete in the same market, providing the same services, could make the data we use while using Hangouts or Messenger / WhatsApp, free? Would that not kill innovation and start-ups that have shallower pockets unlike these multi-billion dollar corporations?

Just over a month ago, Meerkat, a real-time video broadcasting app launched on the App Store and created major ripples over Twitter and became a breakaway successs. After 3 weeks, Periscope launched, and it did the same very thing, only in much more efficient way, and at a faster speed. Within days, most of those who used Meerkat, switched to Periscope as it offered a better product. This example exemplifies just how important choice is in this ever-changing world of technology that we live in. The internet doesn't respect habit, it respects choice and judges quality. That is the beauty of the internet.

There is another controversy surrounding Facebook's internet.org initiative. Internet.org is albeit a noble initiative by Facebook to provide essential communication, healthcare and news, (in India's case, Facebook, TOI, an HIV-related information website, Flipkart, among others) for free, in poor countries. On a personal note, I have been struggling to form a definite opinion on this. While I certainly admire the concept, it clearly violates net neutrality. I would, still, want this to exist, for those people that don't use and can't afford internet services, but without commercial services like Flipkart and ClearTrip. And, such plans should inherently be revoked for those that subscribe to internet packs, in lieu of its obvious contradiction to net neutrality.

The story so far? Internet is awesome. Net neutrality is a necessity. Telecom operators and ISPs are greedy. Airtel Zero is a no-no. What next? How do I help to protect the internet? 
1) Go to savetheinternet.in and follow the instructions and shoot an email to TRAI, and tell them why we, citizens of India, want net neutrality before 24th April. Make sure you send them an email from all of your email IDs.
2) Share it on Facebook and tweet about it to @narendramodi, @PMOIndia and @rsprasad and your whole timeline.
3) Call your MLA, MP and ask him to convey your wishes to those at TRAI and Ravi Shankar Prasad, our Hon. Telecom Minister.

If you want to read further, go ahead and read / watch these amazing explanations from other people on the internet. After all, internet is all about choice, isn't it?
1) Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web Net writes a guest post titled 'Neutrality is critical for Europe's Future', and it applies equally to any and every country in the world: http://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/ansip/blog/guest-blog-sir-tim-berners-lee-founding-director-world-wide-web-foundation_en.
2) Mahesh Murthy's blogpost on LinkedIn. My personal favorite from everything I've read / heard / seen about net neutrality so far, 'How Airtel, Voda and TRAI are trying to screw Indian internet users': https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-airtel-voda-trai-trying-screw-indian-internet-users-mahesh-murthy.
3) The Verge's Vlad Savov writes about why 'Facebook's march to global domination is trampling over net neutrality': http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/13/8024993/facebook-internet-org-net-neutrality.
4) A segment on 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver' about net neutrality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU.
5) AIB's satirical, honest, about 'Save The Internet': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfY1NKrzqi0.

Peace, and love.

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