Tug 'O' war for Internet freedom

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 30, 2010 19:40 hrs

Who will own the Internet? The question is an oxymoron since no one owns cyberspace.

Online activists allege the scene could change if Google and Verizon have their way

Online search giant Google and Internet Services Provider (ISP) Verizon have put forward a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow broadband operators and network operators (read wireless) to offer new services that might be discriminate in terms of their price and speed.

US media reports suggest the House Energy & Commerce Committee is working on compromise language for a targeted network neutrality bill that could be introduced soon, though any action before the mid-term elections is unlikely.

The public Internet (read wireline) will remain untouched, assure Google and Verizon. But critics argue that the move goes against the grain of network neutrality (also known as net neutrality or Internet neutrality), which enshrines a principle whereby ISPs and governments will not place restrictions on content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed.

Speaking at the ‘Nokia World’ conference in London this September, inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, said: "There are a lot of companies who would love to be able to limit what webpages you can see...the moment you let net neutrality go, you lose the web as it is...You lose something essential — the fact that any innovator can dream up an idea and set up a website at some random place and let it just take off from word of mouth..."

US President Barack Obama, too, reiterated that he is "...a firm believer in net neutrality" and against a "bunch of gateways" being created to prevent anyone from creating the next YouTube or Google.

"Essentially, they are proposing they (Google and Verizon) be permitted to create a two-tier system whereby network capacity could be sold to companies willing to pay for that service and in turn provide a higher quality service to their opt-in users," explained Andreas Pouros, COO of Greenlight - an independent search and social marketing agency.

Coordinators of the savetheinternet.com – that claims to have around two million people who have come together with thousands of non-profit organisations, businesses and bloggers to protect Internet freedom – alleged, "...the nation’s largest telephone and cable companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding, which web sites go fast or slow and which won’t load at all..."

The coalition, which is being coordinated by Free Press said: "...They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of data. They want to discriminate in favour of their own search engines, Internet phone services and streaming video — while slowing down or blocking services of their competitors..."

Innovation will be stifled, competition limited and access to information restricted, they argued.

Companies like Google and Verizon, however, disagree. Washington Telecom and Media Counsel for Google Richard Whitt reacted sharply to the criticism.

"We don’t expect everyone to agree with every aspect of our proposal, but there has been a number of inaccuracies about it, and we do want to separate fact from fiction....If adopted, this proposal would, for the first time, give FCC the ability to preserve the open Internet through enforceable rules on broadband providers. At the same time, FCC will be prohibited from imposing regulations on the Internet itself....Verizon has agreed to voluntarily abide by these same requirements going forward — another first for a major communications provider. We hope this action will convince other broadband companies to follow suit...Our two companies are proposing a legislative framework to the Congress for its consideration...We’re simply trying to offer a proposal to help resolve a debate which has largely stagnated after five years..."

The critics remain unconvinced. But, what does this mean for India? "The net neutrality debate has not touched India yet. There’s been no debate in the public media or in any regulatory briefings from TRAI," said Alok Shende, principal analyst and co-founder, Ascentius Consulting.

He attributed it partly to lack of awareness. "The other reason could be that India will be presented with a fait accompli and there’s not much choice that India has if the US was to discard net neutrality.

He explained: "India is more of a taker than a decider since more of the web traffic is flowing outside India (inter - traffic originating in India terminates on some web server outside India) than within India (Intra- pockets originating in India terminating within India). Indian service providers will be compelled to renegotiate prices based on the traffic benchmarks that the US ISP’s of ISP’s provide. That’s the way I mean to say that India will be a price taker."

(The author, on a sabbatical from Business Standard, is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Research Fellow 2010-11)

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