I was always amused by the way Indians reacted to the Airtel Zero scheme, but I never felt like articulating my views on it until I heard news about the DoT secretary’s remarks today. I do not find his arguments and those of these so called net neutrality ‘activists’ very convincing. I mean come on, these companies are offering their services for FREE (we Indians used to be big time suckers for that) and they are being very transparent about the whole thing! My first peeve with these ‘activists’ is that they are using terminology used by American Internet activists to bring to light the bandwidth throttling and fast lane policies implemented by certain ISPs (like Comcast throttling Netflix). Airtel Zero & Internet.org does not do anything of that sort, as they are in the business of zero rating, i.e they are doing the internet equivalent of offering free shampoo sachets with magazines. If you do not like it, just bloody go and get yourself another scheme or service provider, AFAIK Airtel doesn’t stop/throttle your access to any service in their other (paid) schemes (except for those FB data access plans).
An oft used argument is that ISPs should behave like utility providers and be agnostic towards the use of the service they provide (like the way power companies don’t care if you power up a Fridge or a washing machine). But the Internet does not work like a power/water/gas utility. The fact is that the notion (illusion?) of net neutrality is held together by diverse and arcane agreements between ISPs, undersea cable owners, CDN providers and media houses. The one thing most of the world agrees on is that ISPs go foul when they deceive their (paying) consumers by throttling and fast lane services of their choice. But jury is still out on zero rating policies violating net neutrality, and we see many critical but nuanced views from both supporters and detractors (like this one by Mozilla), something that escapes the usual level of discourse among our arm chair Internet activists.
Banding under the net neutrality banner to stop ISPs from coming up with creative (and importantly, free) schemes like Airtel zero and Internet.org to bring internet access to the last mile is unfair to the telecom companies as well as the millions of users who would have been beneficiaries of the schemes. This confusing of issues has served only our ill-advised activists as they started getting favorable and uncritical coverage from all over the world, most of which implicitly assumed that Indians were facing genuine net neutrality violations. And now political compulsions has seemed to force even the progressive govt at the center to issue half-baked pronouncements against zero rating (atleast they have clarified their views on net neutrality in general which is a win for the Indian public). I do not know what the best model for spreading the Internet in India is, but for a medium that spread through the world due to market forces, the problem is best left to these same forces to figure out, and as long as there is a free and open ecosystem, fair access policies (ensured by regulators) and enough choices for customers, net neutrality will remain alive and well in our country.