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Debate on Principle of Net Neutrality and Its Concerns January 29, 2016

Organized by: Debating Development Initiatives
Venue: Activity Room, Pixel B, Azim Premji University
Time: 2.00pm – 4.00pm

Abstract

The Internet has always remained a level playing field and has facilitated innovation in various areas of its presence. Be it companies such as Google, Facebook or Flipkart, they initially started off as a simple website and were able to reach out to millions of users. All this was possible because internet as a network is neutral and does not discriminate between the parties providing the information. However, a large section of our society is still deprived of information. Thus, to address the issue of digital literacy, should we allow "Free Basics" a service provided by Facebook which would provide basic information on topics like health, news, agriculture etc. for free? Is net neutrality necessary? Should telecom companies be allowed to have a larger say in the way internet is used by its customers? This debate will draw its arguments from several topics like data privacy, policy making, surveillance, digital colonialism, democracy and sovereignty and more.

Discussion

Our lives are largely governed by information today. The Indian state is striving hard to digitize most of its departmental functions to bring about more transparency and speed to its functioning. The rhetoric of smart cities is a common talk now. The most salient medium for transfer of this information is the "internet". Internet is called the network of networks and provides capabilities that can connect any part of the world instantaneously using an electronic medium. Due to its ubiquitous nature, the internet has acquired a huge political and economic importance. Internet is just a medium for transfer of information and does not discriminate data by its nature, be it image, audio, video, document, crypto currency, torrent or any other type.

The Principle of net neutrality seeks to maintain the information neutral aspect of internet and seeks to foster innovation and encourage competition. However, the internet is also a medium which is used by dangerous antisocial elements to serve their needs. Cyber terrorists and hackers who prey on unsuspecting individuals to strip them of their hard earned money, malicious users who wish to damage someone’s identity or cause communal violence, women and child traffickers searching for clients and victims. Should the government take proactive measures to regulate the internet and violate net neutrality? Can we justify state surveillance? How should we think about issues of individual data privacy and national security? Does internet enable democracy and one of its ideals; the freedom of expression?

A little more than 80 percent of our population does not have access to the internet. Facebook seeks to address this divide by bringing information in a limited manner on smallest and cheapest of the phones through its “Free Basics” initiative. Free Basics can be used by the customer at no extra cost to the telecom operator. This initiative however raises several questions. Will it be foolish to think that Facebook actually means philanthropy through this initiative? The way Free Basics works, all transfer of data would be done through Facebook’s internet.org servers and would be modified based on the nature of the device seeking information, should Facebook be able to censor information? This narrow channel of information transfer can be potentially used for political ends. Also we are exposing information of a bulk of our population to a single foreign corporate entity, does it threaten our sovereignty? How do we perceive this from the angle of digital colonialism? Finally should a less than 20 percent population using the internet today decide what is right for the rest 80 percent when it comes to acceptance of Free Basics?



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