Net Neutrality: Convictions and Confusions

18 Apr 2015

A poor and highly vocal debate is happening over net neutrality in India. After many discussions and much confusion, here’s what I think.

net neutrality
noun
the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.

The debate should begin by asking ourselves what kind of Internet we want. There’s no point arguing over which outcome is better if we disagree on what we want. I’m also going to use the term ‘website’ to mean websites, web services or anything else you access over the Internet.

The Internet has traditionally had a unique utility. It costs the same to view any site. Distance doesn’t matter, all sites are equally convenient to visit. There’s no premium zone where you get parking, air conditioning and fast food. More money does buy faster response times. I’ll deal with this later.

Historically, this has meant a lot to users of the Internet. People write websites and send links to their friends. Some of these websites become really popular and others die out. What differentiates them is only their utility to the user - two websites that did exactly the same thing, all other things being equal, would presumably get an equal number of users.

Now, it is true that people have different capacities to build cool websites. There is also some correlation between the amount of money you have and how easy it is for you to become popular. But notice that, traditionally, you still had to spend that extra money making your website cooler for it to become more popular. This is true even if you were just giving that money away on your website, say in the form of discount coupons for something. Overall, the Internet became more useful.

Imagine that the internet had been structurally unequal. The way the Internet itself behaved meant that you found it easier to go to some websites than others. Then poor people with cool websites who couldn’t pay to gain the kind of structural advantages that rich people could would probably have a harder time getting their websites famous. Some of those poor people would never make it to stardom, and give up. Overall, there might still be really cool websites made by rich people, but it wouldn’t be the best Internet we could have had. There is some loss in utility.

I like the idea that a small startup that can build a search engine that performs better than Google has no other barriers to it becoming more popular than Google. And by extension, for any other website. However, I don’t think this equality is absolute. For example, if the only way poor people can have access to free Internet education is through Wikipedia instead of Coursera, then I am open to the idea that access to only Wikipedia might be better than no access to either.

From now on, I’ll assume that we want to preserve this opportunity-giving nature of the Internet as far as possible. People with less money who have brilliant ideas should be empowered by the Internet. But also, we want to ensure that the Internet empowers poor1 people. These are the two big wins of the Internet. Our goal is to find a reasonable way to achieve both. If you don’t agree with this, then you will find many of my arguments strange.

I will use the abbreviations PPwBI (Poor1 People with Brilliant Ideas) and BIfPP (Brilliant Ideas for Poor People). The Internet is the biggest enabler of both.

I want to address some common arguments on both sides of this debate.

What debate? Net neutrality is obviously a good thing, and it’s only these corporate Airtel-Reliance-Facebook people who are supporting it. How can you support censorship and inequality?

The greatest fool in the world may say it is sunny outside, but that doesn’t make it start raining. I have no love for Reliance, but if they come up with a good argument against net neutrality, I will accept it. In fact, I will try to think of such arguments myself, no matter what my personal convictions. So should you.

Since you say net neutrality is “obviously good”, you must have some very strong reasons for believing so. I would love to hear them2.

Don’t confuse many different issues with net neutrality. It’s possible to be against censorship and net neutrality.

Inequality is a tricky subject. It seems to me that no matter what system you opt for on the Internet, you can only have some kinds of equality. People will always have different amounts of money, and can purchase faster servers, more bandwidth, CDNs, discount schemes, freebies, advertising and other things that give them an advantage over a poorer competitor who has a better product. This is probably a good thing because it means that when you pay more to a better product, it becomes better using the money you paid for it. Remember that rich Internet companies made something cool that people paid for (mostly, anyway).

It’s still an important question because we don’t want to discourage PPwBI more than we have to. The Internet has allowed the poorer competitor with a better product to overthrow the established monarch so many times. So the real question is what’s an acceptable trade-off to allow. I’ll come back to this question.

Free Facebook + Gmail + Whatsapp + Google! Hard to argue against that.

Yes, it is. I’m not going to argue against it.

What I’m going to argue for is that consumers should decide which websites they access for free.

Fundamentally, nobody can stop anyone from giving away stuff for free. If Google wanted, they could always pay you to search, covering your Internet costs. If regulators outlawed that, Google would find another way to pay you back. Maybe by promising that ad revenues would go towards creating a driverless car and open sourcing that technology. I think this is okay. Even a Good Thing.

My problem is when I don’t get to choose which sites to access for free. How can I possibly choose this? Say website X wants to give everybody free access to it. But website X offers a service, like VoIP, that competes with Airtel’s telephony service. So Airtel refuses to let it subsidise traffic.

Here, we see the problem. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can act as kingmakers in the highly free and open market that is the Internet. This is different from consumers choosing to access a service more because it is free, it is ISPs allowing free access to services that tie up with it. When these goals align, as they do in the case of the question above, there doesn’t seem to be any problem. If ISPs had to provide subsidised access to any website that could pay for it, I would have no problem with that. I do have a problem with ISPs deciding which websites become free - because the moment you allow that, you place the fate of PPwBI in the hands of ISPs.

This is fundamentally unfair. ISPs are businesses too, often with competing or aligning interests. I don’t believe that as a PPwBI, I should have to worry about what ISPs in different regions will think of my particular idea. In fact, if ISPs are worried about my idea, it’s probably because it does something cool for consumers that their own business doesn’t do. Like Skype.

Allowing ISPs to interfere in this is a lose-lose situation for everyone but the ISPs. Consumers lose because they don’t get access to a better service and the resulting competition and price fall. PPwBI obviously lose.

If you point to the fact that ISPs are currently not abusing this power, say, because Whatsapp is free too, then that is naive. ISPs have every reason to let people think they’re acting in the public interest. If you really believe that this abuse is a problem, then why not support its inclusion into regulation?

If ISPs don’t have the power to choose which websites are free, then any website can pay to provide free access to it. Then the consumer really has choice - access a free service that sucks or a cool service that makes me pay up. Not that different from YouTube and Netflix.

Okay now I’m confused. Are you for or against Internet.org?

I don’t know enough about Internet.org to answer that. I do know that whenever I try to access it, it informs me that I need to be on a Reliance network. And something inside me screams and breaks.

But let me address the principle of Internet.org - free Internet access to essential services for poor people. Or more generally, free1 BIfPP.

I think this is a Good Thing. When you bring poverty into the picture, the equation changes. I don’t think it’s as important for a startup to have an equal chance of getting a poor man’s business. It’s more important to eliminate the poverty first.

And this ties in perfectly with what I said earlier about companies being equally able to pay ISPs for subsidising traffic. If Facebook and Wikipedia want to be socially responsible, they can subsidise access to their websites. Heck even give them faster speeds on their servers. Why does Airtel or Reliance need to be involved in that decision?

I would even go further and suggest that the Government or NGOs or other experts should make a list of websites that would benefit poor people immensely, and go ahead and subsidise access to them. At no point, however, should ISPs have a say. If poor people find Skype economically liberating from the tyranny of Vodafone’s STD rates, then so be it. If ISPs think that increasing data usage is leading to plummeting revenues (which is unlikely), then they can go ahead and increase data rates. Uniformly. This means that subsidised websites will have to pay more now. Uniformly more.

Ultimately, being able to subsidise any BIfPP equally is always better for poor people than allowing ISPs to have a say in it.

But allowing any website to pay for subsidising itself still means that richer websites will have an advantage!

Yes.

But consider what kind of equality you are really asking for. Rich websites will always have an advantage over poorer ones. In most cases, this is the product of them providing valuable services to people who paid for it out of free choice. The Internet is not “inherently equal”, and it never has been. You could write a Pulitzer-prize winning analysis of net neutrality, but Buzzfeed will probably still get more likes and page views. (Perhaps because your analysis is Pulitzer-prize winning. Stuff that wins prizes can’t be too popular.) Previous success gives you the means to perpetuate that success, even to the detriment of better competition. I think this is true especially in a free market.

Maybe you have a problem with the directness of the whole thing - throwing money at ISPs and giving away something for free, just to get traffic. It’s not like they’re using that money to improve their service, they’re just using their previously gotten wealth to further entrench themselves. It’s a money making machine!

This is also true. But unless you can show why a consumer who is unhappy with this arrangement can’t switch to a competitor, I’m Fine With ThatTM. Sufficient evidence for this would be, for example, showing that one company has a monopoly, and that it is reasonably impossible for anyone to compete, because of the kind of money that it can throw at the competition. But if this were true, it would probably manifest itself even without allowing websites to pay for subsidised access. There are so many other ways money can buy you users. Also, there are antitrust laws for this kind of stuff. I’m not familiar with the subject, but surely this kind of problem is not unique to Internet companies.

Like I’ve argued previously, rich people will always have an advantage. In this case, I think the advantage of paying for free website access is not unique or threatening enough to PPwBI to regulate away. It can also provide a huge benefit to BIfPP. Other advantages, like a monopoly, or a privileged position of kingmaker as an ISP, are a problem, and need to be regulated away.

In summary, this debate needs more evidence to be resolved. I don’t know whether PPwBI will face crushing defeat because of not being able to pay for free access to their websites. (I think that’s very unlikely). I also don’t know whether Internet costs, and not better Internet penetration or something else, is the real problem for BIfPP. But one thing is clear to me - ISPs shouldn’t have a say about which websites you access.

What confusions and convictions do you have about net neutrality?


  1. Poverty can be of many kinds. A wealthy black man who can’t send his son to school is also poor. Perhaps “means of access” is some metric to measure poverty. Correspondingly, I also use the word “pay for” in its broader sense, as in “accessing”.

    Poverty is also relative. When I say Wikipedia is good for poor people, I’m talking about you. Yes you, who doesn’t have access to a theologian when you look up the history of Islam.

    Consequentially, the word “free” also doesn’t only mean free in cost, but blind to poverty of any kind. Anyone can access something that’s free.  2 3

  2. Actually I have a lot of rude things to say about most people talking about net neutrality in India today. I think that had popular opinion in the US been the other way round, with most people against it instead of for, and had big companies and telcos been arguing for net neutrality, against small NGOs and startups who wanted to provide free access to Facebook in villages, most of these people would have ferociously tweeted #net-n-is-stupid. This is the problem with getting your opinions second hand. 

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