The Basics of Net Neutrality

The debate on net neutrality is at its fiercest these days. The debate is also chaotic and noisy. While over 10 lakh individuals have written to TRAI favouring Net Neutrality, the operators have compared this massive response with something akin to a mob, asking the TRAI to decide the issue based on their own responses rather than going by those 10 lakh emails.

This debate is not really being carried out in a way it should be. The right debate should be a series of arguments and counterarguments from all sides. I see a potential risk that while TRAI will have the arguments from the operators side, as they are so few in numbers, TRAI may not cull out the counterarguments given by the 10 lakh users. To make the debate logical, I attempt to lay down a few basic starting points. All sides need to agree at least on a few common starting points, and then they could have different views, which in turn can be debated.

Here I point out that the terms "Internet" and "Net Neutrality" need to be defined and agreed upon at least for the benefit of non-technical common users, media and the government officials such as those in TRAI.

Internet: Internet is a well defined, single, global network of computers. These computers range from humble smart phones to massive servers. Internet operates on a key defining protocol called 'Internet Protocol' (or IP) which states that all computers on internet are identified with their IP addresses (they often look like 104.28.19.166). IP takes the data in the form of packets (or bunches of data bytes) and describes how the packets are routed from one IP address to another. The data packet could be carrying part of an email, a web page, a video, an audio clip, a number, a form response,... The content of the data packets are immaterial to the IP. The purpose of the internet is to simply carry data from one computer to another using the Internet Protocol.

Internet Service Provider (ISP): There is only one, global internet. The job of an ISP is to link its customers with that internet, using the globally standardised IP as the protocol. Internet service is provided under license (the ISP license) in India. The mobile telecom operators have this license but so do many others including landline telecom companies and even non-telecom companies.

It is easy to see that just as the internet doesn't care what data its protocols are carrying, the ISPs too should not care what data their networks carry. Rarely, the law could require the ISP to block access to certain IP addresses, but even that doesn't give them the right to try and decipher the users' data.

Yet, that has not stopped a few ISPs, especially the mobile operators, to deploy certain specialised tools that attempt to read the users' data packets. While often these tools are not able to decrypt the users' data, based on certain patterns they attempt to find out the type of data the packets might be carrying, such as voice, text, images, etc. Those patterns are proprietary to the tool vendors and their accuracy in being able to identify the packets is doubtful. The internet standards certainly do not specify any way to identify the packets. It is quite possible, for example, for a tool deployed by Airtel to identify a video stream data as VOIP data.

The mobile operators are also trying to confuse TRAI and the public when they equate their voice services with the likes of Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, etc. It is important for the public, media and especially the regulators to understand that unlike the operators these applications are not the ISPs or carriers. They run at the computers and use the already licensed internet to transmit their packets. These services are not free to the users. They consume data and the users pay to their ISPs for that data.

Net Neutrality: Obviously, internet, linking billions of computers, is not a trivial platform. It is an outstanding result of an immense amount of effort from thousands of engineers from several countries. It was no exaggeration when the telecom minister Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad referred to internet as one of the finest creations of human mind.

Although Net Neutrality is not a recognised legal principle in India, Net Neutrality is a powerful engineering principle that lies at its core. Without such engineering, internet could not have grown into such a stellar platform that it is today. In my words, I identify some of the following attributes of Net Neutrality:

  • Any computer on internet should be able to communicate with any other computer on internet over IP, except for rare occasional legal restrictions.
  • The physical or geographical location of the servers on internet is immaterial.
  • Internet should be agnostic of the higher layers, that is, the applications generating the data packets are immaterial for internet and it does not give preference to one over the other.
  • Internet transmits data packets equally irrespective of the manufacturer of various equipment and computers or the companies or the individuals who develop the applications as long as everyone follows the defined standards.

These defined standards are crucial for the success of internet. Net Neutrality is about preserving of these open engineering principles that has made it so successful.

The proponents of Net Neutrality must force the TRAI to list down the arguments and counterarguments based on facts. Media too should take a moment to understand what is internet, what makes it successful, what is net neutrality and why it is so crucial when it reports.

The government and the regulators now need to only make up for the missing link and recognise the neutrality of engineering principles underlying the internet as a law so that the ISPs cannot tinker with internet as they choose to in their own pecuniary interests. The ISPs are licensed to provide "internet" service, not some arbitrary variant of internet that suits their individual interest. The Net Neutrality regulation must preserve and aid the engineering of internet that has made it so successful rather than try to undermine it.