Understanding Net neutrality

BY SHIRISH AGARWAL| IN Digital Media | 19/11/2014
In light of the debate over the FCC recommendations on regarding charging more for high-speed Internet, we present a briefing on what the issues are.
SHIRISH AGARWAL decodes net neutrality (Pix: President Obama -- supporting Net neutrality).

Internet freedom organisations in the US  have been debating the implications of net neutrality, after the country’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler released Internet rules in May that would let Internet Service Providers (ISPs) charge for accessing content. This would change the Open Internet Order, which prevents ISPs from blocking or slowing users’ connections to online content. President Obama brought up the issue at G20 last week. The FCC was to vote on the rule in December 2014, but last week, it decided to postpone the vote to 2015, when Republicans get full control of Congress.


What exactly is Net Neutrality and why is it such a big deal?

In order to understand what Net neutrality is, we need to understand a bit about the way the Internet currently works. In its simplest form, the Internet is made of clients and servers and the software program relationship between them. A client, or the software program, is what we use to send a request to a server, or another program. For instance, when we use a browser (Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari or Internet Explorer to name a few), to visit any website, we are using a ‘client’ program to send a request to a ‘server’ program to load the website on receiving the request.

Now the system, which goes back and forth sending this data from the server to the client and back is very much like a typical Indian road where everybody uses the road irrespective of how big or small the vehicle is.

Those who oppose this current state want to have a two-tiered Internet, where those who can pay more, travel at higher speeds than those who can’t. While this will affect access to content, there are fears it will impact online advertising and commerce as well. Banking, online shopping sites, gaming sites or, as has already happened with the popular video/movie streaming site like Netflix, will pay telecom operators more to move their data faster.

Already, there are campaigns by Internet freedom organisations all over the world against two-tiered Internet and for Net Neutrality. A group of students even set out to design a game on to explain how life after 2-tiered network will be. 

The Internet rests on a complicated web of tiered relationships, where each strand is technically as weak or as strong as the other. Preserving these relationships is important for Net Neutrality.

 ISP, website owner and user relationship

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telcos are Tier 1 network providers and sell bandwidth (the amount of data that can be transferred per second) to website owners so that people can see their site. The users also pay the ISP for bandwidth (depending on the broadband or the speed at which data is transferred) so they can surf or use the Internet. Hence, the ISP gets money from both the Website Owner and the Users. 

While websites do pay less for bandwith than they did earlier, in India, some webhosts do charge different rates for bandwith. And ISP's do want to charge more from webhosts and websites as, from their perspective, the latter two consume resources.

The ISP expenses: 

a.    License and Spectrum Fees: an amount that they have to pay once in a decade or so. 

b.    Infrastructure: Depends on the ISP but generally most ISPs make the infrastructure (laying dark fibre, or unused optic fibre) once and this is lit as and when needed.

c.     Recurring expenses (Staff, Knowledge skills etc.): These are the expenses that the ISP has every month. 

The bulk of the expenses of an ISP are in (a) and (b), for which many a times they are also subsidised by government funds (read public money). ISPs, which come under the telecom sector, have been given subsidies in the form of tax breaks on capital expenditure. There were 100% tax holidays to Indian ISP's till 2005 and they are lobbying for the interim period to be considered as tax holidays too. Recurring expenses form only about 5% of whatever revenue ISPs get.

Do ISPs make a profit and are they justified in asking for more or charging more? Unfortunately, it is difficult to put a figure to the amount of revenue they make as all agreements are under NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreements). But there is a need for greater transparency in their pricing and charges and their profits after tax. 

 If Net Neutrality is removed

Here’s what Internet freedom activists fear will result from removing Net Neutrality:

a.    Paywalls: Site owners may be forced to resort to some kind of a paywall so that it's sustainable for them. But this will make a poorer experience for all such users. Think of wikipedia.org or indiatimes.com or facebook.com or even your net banking activities being chargeable.

b.    Censorship: Activist sites devoted to civil liberties and human rights would take a severe beating financially.  Sooner than later, they may have to close down as these charges increase. So you would see huge swatches of Internet just disappear.  The effect would be the same as if there was censorship.

As it is, in India, censorship is covert and domains are seized on the flimsiest of reasons and not given back for years. (See India Requests for Data as well as blocks on Savukku.net, ripoffreport.com, lookingglass.blog.co.uk, imagebam.com, imgbox.com, stooorage.com, Uploaded.net,care.org.).

So, as more and more of the big internet corporations own the highway, it would be easier for them to bully others. Remember how Comcast throttled file-sharing networks in 2007 ? Companies were unable to distinguish which file-sharing networks were legal and which were not, and ended up throttling everything. 

Another example is of the Canadian ISP Telus. In July 2005, it made sure their customers/users were not able to view a union site which was in dispute with Telus. 

c.    Latency: This refers to the time we put an url in our browser and the time it takes for the webpage to come on our browser. This latency is similar for most of the sites. If we have tiered internet, then only the big websites would be faster and smaller sites wouldn't even show on our browser.

d.    The repercussions of having slow access to a site can be seen in Slow Is The New Outrage as well as studies such as Akamai reveals 2 seconds as the New Threshold of Acceptability for ecommerce Web Page Response Times which have shown that each second of added latency means lesser people coming to the site. Also, we could forget all the blogs that we write, they will be of no use as nobody would be able to see them.

e.    Innovation: Innovation on the Internet takes place at a frenetic pace. This is due to the simple fact that everybody here gets the same treatment. Hence three college roommates are able to make a search engine which is the engine most used today (Google) or two or three friends are able to make a social network which is one of the largest social media networks today (Facebook). If the two-tiered network comes into play, then you can kiss such innovation good bye. It’ll just be a lot harder to access or share the latest information quickly and easily.

In terms of infrastructure, ISPs buy multiple servers and additional caches in different areas of the world so they can reach their users faster. They use 'network redundancy' and 'load sharing' to manage access if servers go down or are overloaded. They already lobby to keep dark fibre as dark fibre. But we need to be aware that there is more than enough dark fibre laid which, if lit (i.e. powered on), could be used for the present as well as the near future.

Do they need more?  

Some more resoures :-


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