My take on the net-neutrality debate

The topic of net neutrality has been in the news again following a decision by US agency FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to overturn its ruling from 2015. This has ramifications for all of us. I explain what net neutrality is (at least what I understand of it) and why it matters.

Published on Saturday, December 30, 2017


I came across a wonderful podcast called the IRL Podcast from Mozilla (the good guys who make the awesome Firefox browser) hosted by Veronica Belmont. I was listening to the episode on Net Neutrality Emergency and was struck by the gravity of the matter. The show's tagline goes: "Because online life is real life" - come to think of it, the internet is as essential a service as electricity and clean water. When was the last time you stood in a line to pay a utility bill? Or book a ticket for a movie? The internet is such a vital part of our lives that we don't even realise its there. There's now a precedence being set in US that threatens the foundations of this vital cog in the wheel of the modern life.

The Issue

Consider a not so far fetched scenario: You've got free time and want to watch a nice flick on your favourite streaming service. You switch on your smart TV (or laptop/device - you get the gist!) and try to open up the streaming service's website/app and are presented with a message: "This service is unavailable on your plan. Watch our own FooFlix instead". Most of us would be very cross at this time! You'd probably say "Ah but its just a streaming service, no big deal!" - well, let me explain why it is: for a start, your ISP (internet service provider) knows which website you are trying to access - which by no means is their business. Second, they are discriminating between equivalent services and dictating which one you should use - without your consent - or even presenting you with a choice. That is a big deal! In a free society, choice is the bedrock of freedom and indispensable - lest it ain't a free society after all! Like this piece on The New York Times alludes to, in order to understand the true graveness of the matter of net-neutrality, one should consider the experience of browsing the internet in Beijing. A gist from that article describing the experience of browsing inside "the great firewall":

Some sites load with soul-withering slowness, or not at all. Others appear instantly. Content vanishes without warning or explanation. ... They (Chinese netizens) gravitate towards the few sites that aren't slowed or blocked entirely: the Chinese counterparts of Facebook, Google and Twitter.

By inference, accepting to use censored services, the users accept snooping and censorship of their private business on the internet.

So, the TL;DR; of the issue (as I see it):

  1. Net-neutrality is basically saying that a telco/ISP treats all lawful content equally
  2. The choice of which service to use is vested with the consumer of the service, rather than the provider

This is explained much more precisely by this short video from New York Times:

Why is this important?

Freedom of speech and expression is a pillar of free society. Consider a world where a big corporation that wants its own puppet politicians in power can legally stifle an independent political information website by paying to have their content throttled or unavailable altogether. They also influence the public opinion by feeding favourable facts through websites owned by them. This has already occurred, though clandestinely, during elections around the world - in the US, India and other countries. Without a neutral internet, we are basically bracing up for an open and common, unchecked conduct similar to this. The lack of net-neutrality also poses a grave danger to free market competition and innovation: a new player/startup challenging an established enterprise can be similarly outdone by making their service unusable compared to the big established player's.

What Changed?

From what I understand, in 2015, the FCC brought out regulations to protect net-neutrality. They laid out rules of the game and proclaimed themselves as the enforcing authority. On December 14, 2017, the same FCC repealed the regulations set forth in 2015 under the pretext that markets would self regulate and that there is no need for any regulations in the area of high speed internet delivery. Whereas the earlier regulations classified the internet service providers in the same category as public utility companies such as gas, electricity and water, the repeal of those regulations removes that classification. Which brings us to the very plausible issues described by the New York Times article I linked in "The Issue" section of this post. If you're not in America, you might say that this does not affect you - to which I would say, it will, and that's no finger in the air prediction. Many US corporations have direct presence and influence in most developed and developing countries. There's almost a certainty to the statement that this change in US will act as a bad precedence around the world, more so in the developing countries that are also big markets.

What can be done?

First, form an informed opinion:

Next, donate to independent, not for profit organisations:

Talk about this issue

The more we talk about the issue and raise awareness, the higher the chances that more people will get curious and will try to find out more. The dialogue that ensues will hopefully result in a state where such matters aren't pushed under the proverbial carpet.