Telcos can Choke Websites Without Net Neutrality

June 16, 2015

Telecom companies must be dumb conveyors of content. Allowing them to be tollgate operators on the Internet highway would put freedom of speech at risk.  

 
 

By Manoj Mitta

Several TV news channels died only because they could not afford the carriage fee charged by cable and DTH operators. The proposal of doing away with net neutrality”, as mooted by a TRAI consultation paper, raises the possibility of media websites too falling prey to the carriage fee model. This was the consensus at a workshop titled, “Erosion of net neutrality: Impact on the media”.

If the TRAI proposal were to be accepted, India will have more in common with China, which has a notoriously controlled Internet access, than with the US, which recently adopted a “hard law” to protect net neutrality, according to Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access, an organisation dedicated to keeping Internet open and espousing the rights of users.

Referring to the push already made some telecom and Internet companies for “zero rating arrangements” (or differential rating for different sites, apps or services), Chima underlined the need for a “net neutrality oversight” to ensure diversity of content and check any attempt to throttle avenues to access information.

Organised by the Foundation for Media Professionals on Friday, the workshop was also addressed by advocate Apar Gupta and journalist Nikhil Pahwa, who along with Chima are volunteers with “Save the Internet” campaign launched in the wake of the TRAI paper. The main points made by the three experts on the implications for the media are:

The erosion of net neutrality will not just affect media start-ups but also established news organisations. Once digital freedom is compromised, the destiny of each website, irrespective of its size or quality, will be determined by telecom operators providing access to Internet.

Media start-ups or small independent media ventures will of course be immediate casualties of an arrangement in which telecom companies are empowered to create fast and slow lanes or block content for commercial reasons. If they lose their freedom to create and share content, these small media players are liable to close because of their inability to bear the additional burden of preferential treatment.

The big news portals that can afford the carriage fee demanded by telecom companies will be forced to shift their spending from news gathering to distribution costs, affecting the quality of journalism. The vulnerability of established media houses is evident from the experience of the internet.org platform promoted by Facebook. They are under pressure to stay on the platform lest they become less accessible online.

The idea of making the Internet less open will also have security implications. The privacy of journalists may be compromised as telecom companies will do "deep packet inspection" as part of their business deal to ensure speedy access to certain website and slow down access to others.

It also raises a cross media holding issue. Can the owner of what is just a pipeline to Internet be allowed to discriminate between the content? Can the telecom company be allowed to be partial to those media sites with which it has financial deals?

Readers and viewers will be deprived of choice in the post-net neutrality era as they will have access only to those media sites that are customers of the telecom operator. In the process, websites of small publishers and regional press media players likely to disappear from the radar of Internet users but as the Internet loses its existing dynamism and openness, it will become harder for new entrants to be noticed irrespective of the merit of their innovations.