The government has approved the principle of net neutrality. The Telecom Commission (TC) — which is the highest decision-making body in the Department of Telecom — on Wednesday approved the recommendation made by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the subject eight months ago. This means that telecom and Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, site, platform, or application. They cannot engage in practices such as blocking, slowing down or granting preferential speeds to any content.

But this is jargon. What does it mean for the people at large? We attempt to make the concept easy for the lay.

What is net neutrality?

The traffic that we users create simply by browsing the web on our phone, laptop and computer should be treated equally by the companies that have built the infrastructure of the internet — internet service providers (ISPs) like Jio and Airtel, and “interconnect” companies like Tata Communications, which route and direct traffic between you and your internet provider. ISP’s connect end users to the Internet while Tata Communications is the only Tier 1 company, which can reach every other network on the Internet without purchasing IP transit fee or paying for Internet peering. This state of affairs, broadly, is called “net neutrality”.

Net neutrality means that data packets “should be moved impartially.” In simple terms, no information sent or received over the Internet is more important than any other piece of information. This means your favourite Netflix TV show does not get more importance than a YouTube video. Nobody is special, everyone gets the same internet speed.

What will happen if net neutrality is not present?

On the other side, some businesses want net neutrality ended so their data gets priority. This means their sites, videos, and music would be delivered faster to consumers. For example, Airtel TV or Jio TV would run faster than YouTube videos if net neutrality is not present.

Currently, there are no laws enforcing Net Neutrality in India. Trai had opened up a debate whether Net Neutrality is necessary in India or not.

Facebook’s Free Basics vs net neutrality

TRAI rejected Facebook’s Free Basics which violates net neutrality principles, and it’s not even very helpful to those who use it. Free Basics, an app that provides free access to specific services in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, was already banned in India last year for violating net neutrality rules.

Upon opening the app, users have to get by with a Bing search engine, a Johnson & Johnson-sponsored baby advice app, and a number of other sponsored apps. Facebook is usually the only popular social media app available on Free Basics, predictably, while smaller, language-specific apps like ConnectAmericas for Mexico and Colombia were found in certain cases. Free Basics doesn’t have an email platform.

There are also language and content limitations. In Pakistan, for instance, Free Basics is only available in English and Urdu, leaving out Punjabi, Pashto, and other major languages. A similar problem exists in the other countries. Most of the apps featured inside Free Basics are US and UK-based, with only one or two local options.

Facebook offers its Free Basics to 63 countries, but countries like Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines, Ghana, Pakistan, and Kenya were studied by an activist group “Global Voices”. With Free Basics, the report claims that Facebook acts essentially just like an ISP and collects users’ traffic data. “For users who want to get online with Free Basics, Facebook makes and enforces the rules of the road, and is the primary benefactor of profits generated by user data,” the report states. Facebook’s argument is that limited internet access is better than none, and it’s connecting those who live in rural or impoverished areas in need.

However, TRAI was not convinced. In the document released on 8 February 2016, it had said, “A particular TSP (telecom service provider) which is offering data services to the consumer does not control the internet infrastructure in its entirety. It is dependent on several other networks to facilitate this task. Thus, allowing a TSP which is at one edge of the internet to charge differentially for data that it does not alone process, could compromise the entire architecture of the internet itself. Were other TSPs across multiple tiers allowed to do this, then the openness of internet as we know, would be altered. Allowing price differentiation based on the type of content being accessed on the internet, would militate against the very basis on which the internet has developed and transformed the way we connect with one another”.

In short, Free Basics offered free internet for a small number of platforms like Wikipedia, Facebook etc. but it would use this user data all by itself and users will have to be forced to navigate through many advertisements before they can access any internet. So, anyone with access to WiFi will never want to access Free Basics. The word “free” in the term is a misnomer. The government is, therefore, right in preferring net neutrality to the so-called net freedom.