On Vimeo, VoIP, and What Almost Happened
Avneesh Chandra | Staff Writer
“In an incident last month that went largely unnoticed, a man in Delhi lost his right leg to an amputation; an amputation that, if attended to sooner, could’ve been avoided. The man, being rushed to Mountbatten Memorial Hospital through Sunday traffic, was forced to extend his plight as his brother’s vehicle was pulled over on the highway by a policeman.
The policeman noted the vehicle’s registration number and license plate before determining that it was, in fact, not permitted to be in the faster-moving lane on the multi-carriageway. Not having paid the requisite fee in advance, the brother was asked to shift into the lane closest to the divider, where a slew of cars inched along the tar. Stuck in this line of the ill-prepared, the brothers were forced to waste an unnecessary half an hour as they watched other commuters zip by in the high-speed lane.”
Now, the above-stated account is wholly false, given that there is no such high-speed lane on any highway in Delhi (or anywhere else in India), and there’s especially no Mountbatten Memorial Hospital. What this account is, however, is an analogous picture of the world if net neutrality were to be struck down.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web in the early nineties, people worldwide have enjoyed the unprecedented benefits of net neutrality: a vast, open network with free and unrestricted flow of information from one point to another, where every content creator and consumer is on a level playing field. The last two decades have seen words and ideas sprint from one corner of the globe to the other in the form of text, pictures, audio, and video. Songs in languages spoken in remote corners of the globe have been danced to by billions, and snippets of taboo protests have sparked shattering revolutions. The internet has been used to innovate, build, learn, educate, inform and inspire, all without the shackles of restrictions and regulations.
All this came under threat nearly five years ago, early in 2012, when the US government tried and ultimately, due to the largest online protest in history, failed to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These bills aimed to establish proverbial ‘high-speed lanes’ over the internet, allowing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and corporations unchecked control over the content they provided, effectively aiming to set up a ‘premium’ online experience which would do away with the free and open web the international community currently enjoys. This same attack on the global network had sprung up again, and this time, it had hit a lot closer to home. Bharti Airtel’s sidelined attempts at setting up an extra fee for access to VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), would have affected the accessibility of popular voice-call services like Skype. Our own national government recently put out an order to ISPs to ban thirty-two domains, with well-known websites like Vimeo and GitHub among them, for the reason that they were allegedly hosting jihadi propaganda. In a press release, the Government of India stated:
“It was stated that Anti National group are using social media for mentoring Indian youths to join the Jihadi activities. (…) Many of these websites [SIC] do not require any authentication for pasting any material on them. Others upload articles, videos, or photos, or to download the contents which helps to hide the identities. These websites were being used frequently for pasting, communicating such content by just changing page name even blocking the earlier one.”
Though the bans on the four most prolific websites have been lifted, the problem remains. The simple fact that there is a potential for seditious claims to be made on a platform should not constitute the demolition of the platform. To put this in perspective, for those of us in Manipal, it would be the equivalent of tearing down the theatre stage at TC simply for the reason that a madman could climb up on either and spout his ridiculous doctrines. What is a more pressing issue than even that, however, is the reason Airtel had been forced to suspend its plans to violate net neutrality. In a statement, Airtel said:
“…we have decided not to implement our proposed launch of VoIP packs.
We have no doubt that as a result of the consultation process, a balanced outcome would emerge that would not only protect the interests of all stakeholders and viability of this important sector but would also encourage much–needed investments in spectrum and roll out of data networks to fulfill the objective of digital India.”
When India came close to losing Net Neutrality
In spite of the large public outcry and the protests of the consumers, Airtel had taken a step back only in order to consult with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and could still move forward with their plan, because in our country, there are no laws that protect net neutrality. Airtel’s consultation went further than seeking permission to dismantle the free web with just VoIP. It included plans for Instant Messaging, Applications, Cloud Services, Internet Television, Machine to Machine (M2M) communications, and Social Media.
On April 6th 2015, Bharti Airtel introduced Airtel Zero—an open marketing platform that was aimed at allowing users access to many mobile applications for free while the data charges were proposed to be paid by the application providers. Facebook’s Internet.org offered free access only to Facebook with a few partnering platforms, which basically meant Internet.org was a project to get people on Facebook than provide internet access. This very restriction of access, letting users use only Facebook and those 50 odd affiliates, is a villain to net neutrality in disguise. It means those companies who pay Reliance communications more will be made available to users who use Internet.org and those who choose not to will be inaccessible.
With initiatives like Internet.org by Facebook and Airtel Zero by Bharti Airtel coupled with strong opposition by the Indian people, the government along with the TRAI were put under immense pressure to act. Further driven by personal gains, on 27th May 2015, the TRAI published a consultation paper on over-the-top services (OTT) and net neutrality to gather public feedback running till the 24th of the following month. Furthermore, multiple politicians, actors and imminent personalities came forward publicly backing Net Neutrality. As public outcry grew, many companies associated with Internet.org backed out fearing backlash. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) launched a campaign countering the TRAI called “Sabka Internet, Sab ka Vikas”. It claimed that the COAI aims to connect unconnected citizens of India and demanded that VoIP calls be treated as cellular operators. Marking a definitive win for Indian Net Neutrality, the consultation paper released by the TRAI turned up with emails of over a million-people supporting it. On 8 February 2016, the TRAI finally banned telecom service providers from charging differential rates for data services finally bringing Net Neutrality to India.
How the United States of America violated Net Neutrality
However, the United States, once an inspiration for other countries to follow on the road to Neutrality of the Internet, has come under poor circumstances. The Federal Communications Commission (or popularly known as the FCC) has always been a vocal proponent of Net Neutrality. In 2007, when Comcast, the largest cable company in the States, was caught restricting BitTorrent uploads on their network, the FCC made its first Internet network management decision. It decided to uphold a complaint against Comcast stating that it had illegally denied access to the high-speed internet services to the users. The FCC confirmed that Comcast was using file-sharing software, because it throttled the bandwidth available to certain customers for video files to ensure that other customers had adequate bandwidth. The FCC ruled that Internet providers and all communications companies could not prevent customers from using their networks the way they saw fit. In December 2010, the FCC approved the FCC Open Internet Order barring providers from preventing access to competitors. It then voted on and passed a set of six “Net Neutrality Principles”.
In January 2017, Ajit Pai was appointed as the chairman of the FCC in the Trump administration. An adversary of government influence and regulation, Pai reportedly argued that when the government inserts itself into the Internet’s issues, it stifles innovation and growth. He had once said “Pre-emptive regulation is appropriate when there’s a major market failure—when the Internet is broken”. He went on to suggest that if certain internet content was available to users in ‘more efficient ways’, then he would support it. He also clarified that “we can’t predict in advance every single potential type of outcome—some might be good, some might be bad”. This highly resembled a lot of the arguments and reasoning’s put forth by companies like Internet.org before. In April 2017, Pai reportedly proposed a roll-back of Net Neutrality, with ISPs instead voluntarily committing to its principles. Over 1,000 start-ups and investors signed an open letter to Pai, opposing the proposal. As of May 24, 2017, the FCC’s website received a total of over 2.6 million comments from the public. Finally, on 4th December, due to overwhelming Republican support, the Bill repealing Net Neutrality was passed with a final tally of 3-2, and throwing the United States back into a fight for liberty on the Net.
This article was originally published by Avneesh Chandra for The MIT Post Magazine, first edition. It has been edited to include recent events.