A dummy’s guide to understanding Net Neutrality and issues around it


It’s almost certain that most of you have not only heard about the term “Net Neutrality” but also support the cause. Most certainly you have also gone through various articles explaining the issue, including a video by AIB that is being talked about by everyone in the mainstream media.

The video by AIB makes an analogy where a person is asked to pay different prices for different rides in a park. This is termed unfair and akin to violation of network neutrality. However, if you’ve gone to an amusement park, that’s exactly how it operates.

That might make some people wonder if Net Neutrality is unfair to private businesses, for what is already happening in an amusement park is being termed wrong when replicated in the digital world.

To the credit of AIB, it’s never easy to come up with a perfect analogy. They have done enough to spread the awareness, and this article is an attempt to complement their effort by using a different analogy, which I believe is nearer to how it is in the virtual world.

Broadly, the principle of Net Neutrality says that all internet traffic should be treated equally.

Since it’s about internet traffic, I will use traffic on roadways to explain the issue.

Just like roads are public goods carrying vehicles, so are the data cables and spectrums carrying data packets. Government allows private players to build roads or take spectrum on lease to provide this public service. The private players have every right to earn by charging for this service so that they recover the costs incurred in building the roads or the licensing fees paid for using the spectrum.

Here the private players are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecommunication Service Providers (TSPs). They are allowed to put up toll booths on a road to recover the money they have invested.

For our analogy, we will take a road that connects two cities, say Delhi and Noida. There is actually a toll booth that is on the Delhi-Noida-Delhi (DND) highway.

Consider the vehicles plying on roads as packets of data and information travelling between your computer and a website or an app. So your computer is in Delhi and the website’s server you are accessing is in Noida. Accessing a website or an app means you are travelling from your car from Delhi to somewhere in Noida. You pay toll tax in shape of your broadband bills or the data pack that you have bought on your mobile connection.

Now consider this. The DND asks you to pay higher toll if you are going to meet a friend, but normal toll if you are going to a shopping mall. They know you love your friend more than shopping, so they want to introduce this pricing scheme.

This is discrimination based on the origin or destination of a data packet. This is violation of Net Neutrality.

And the telecos want to do this i.e. charge a certain rate if you access WhatsApp while charge another rate if you just browse some other website.

But your toll booth guy is good. If you don’t want to pay a higher toll tax to visit your friend, you can pay normal toll tax but the toll employee will deflate your tyres a little so that your car starts running slow. This flexibility too is wanted by ISPs and telecos! This is throttling of speed based on origins and destination of data packets, which many ISPs want to indulge in.

Clearly these rules can’t be allowed to be introduced. But you may wonder what about real toll booths charging different toll rates to different vehicles e.g. heavy vehicles are asked to pay higher toll tax? Or what about introducing fast and reserved lanes for those who value their time, and charging differently to them? These appear logical and fair business propositions.

ISPs on their part use this analogy to claim that traffic to something like a WhatsApp or YouTube is like four-axle truck so they should be allowed to charge more. But this is a wrong analogy. Yes, WhatsApp or YouTube indeed guzzle a lot of data, but that means most of the cars are going to the same shopping mall; it doesn’t make every car a truck!

And surprise! They are already charging tolls for fast and reserved lanes. Don’t we pay more to get a higher speed for our broadband connections? Similarly websites and apps pay more to get dedicated ports to handle higher traffic. What they are not allowed to do is to force a car into a different lane, or deflate the tyre, after realizing the source or the destination of the car’s journey.

So what is Airtel Zero? How can this analogy explain the outrage that has finally forced Flipkart to drop out of Airtel Zero?

Airtel Zero is like a particular shopping mall in Noida placing their salesmen at DND toll booths. These salesmen offer to pay the toll tax if the car promises to visit only the shopping mall and nowhere else in Noida.

But that sounds like a good marketing and sales strategy, no? Why so much outrage?

Yes and No. While it might sound like a fair and innovative marketing and sales strategy, it risks car owners seeing toll taxes as unnecessary burden, which can impact the way toll booths operate elsewhere. People could start demanding even a small shop in Noida to pay for their toll and thus smaller businesses will die down.

The way I see it, the main problem is the salesman standing at the DND toll booth. The toll road was supposed to be a contract between the government and the DND, and a third party was not expected to be there. His presence is changing consumer mindset. It is alright if the shopping mall refunds the toll when the car reaches there, but they have no business standing at the toll booth giving free toll tickets thus change the way a person sees the meaning of toll tax.

So are all ISPs and telecos evil and they don’t have a point at all?

Not really. But they need to articulate well. They can’t say they should be allowed to put toll on faster lanes, as they are already doing it (as explained above). What they are essentially asking is the right to deflate tyres, which can’t be given in my opinion.

Telecos in particular claim loss of revenues due to services like WhatsApp and Skype, as they compete with their traditional services. This is not strong enough an argument. They were given the spectrum, not a technology. It is like toll booths cribbing that people have started using carpooling so their collections per car have come down. They need to innovate to compete with the new technology, rather than ask for rules to be changed in their favor.

However, their point about charging differently for cars and trucks is valid. But they need to explain that. A car doesn’t become a truck just because it is going to a particular destination or coming from a particular origin. Some other issues from the perspectives of ISPs can be read here.

Let the ISPs explain their concerns that don’t violate net neutrality principles. Meanwhile thousands are explaining the above points to TRAI. You can also do it by clicking here.

(Disclaimer: I am not a techie. If you think I have slipped up somewhere, do notify in the comments section, and I would consider updating the article to make people understand the issue better. Just keep it simple and don’t make it too technical and complicated, as this is supposed to be a dummy’s guide!)