The much anticipated conversation on Net Neutrality has finally gained momentum and it is indeed the time to celebrate as India's vibrant public sphere has done it again with over 3 lakh people sending out petitions and recommendations to TRAI. However, the debate now runs the danger of becoming an insular dialogue between the community of Internet users and Airtel.
Why are we not asking these questions of Internet.org?
Through the Facebook and Reliance launched Internet.org several first time users of the Internet are to be limited to a 'walled garden' or a select set of zero rating services, primarily Facebook, that will then become the universe of their Internet experience. This is violatory of Net Neutraliy in more ways than one.
The service can be accessed only on the condition that you are a Reliance Communications customer - first biase. The service is selectively packaging the Internet as a 38-website space (see here for bouquet) - second biase.
The obvious danger is that, this denies first-time users the universe of choices that Internet-mediated users have been enjoying all along (well, kind of). This phenomenon is commonly refered to as creating a 'shopping mall' where the consumers choices are restricted to that which he/she sees - what you see is what you get. However, the beauty of the Internet was that ideally, one could seek anything one wanted and would instantly receive unfettered access to a universe of options, or for the sake of this analogy, shops.
A less apparent but somewhat greater danger at hand, informed by personal qualitative research, this fantastic article I chanced upon a few months ago and some other utterances on the Internet, is the impending danger of the increased conflation of the 'Internet as we know it' and 'Facebook'. More and more, first time and intermittent users of the Internet are beginning to view Facebook as the entirety of the Internet. This blurring of identities alerts one to the danger of a situation that is ripe for monopolisation to an inconceivable extent.
An article dated Feb 17, 2015 and a follow up article from India Today, on the same issue, indicate that Google too is looking to adopt the Zero-rating system. Why are we not asking these questions of Google? Or for that matter, as this article ('Not just Airtel Zero: Facebook to WhatsApp, everyone has violated Net Neutrality in India') from the previous day's Indian Express points out, why are we not interrogating Aircel, Wikipedia, Twitter etc.?
And finally, why are we not asking these questions of 69 A?
Whilst unfettered access to the universe of the Internet is a point of discussion, why are we not opposing the retention of section 69A of the Indian Penal Code which permits the arbitrary blocking of pages, websites, blogs etc. by ISPs on instructions issued by Central/State Government without prior notification. There seems to be a procedure outlined in the IPC, which necessitates the assessment of the legitimacy of the 'order' by a Government committee unless in case of an 'emergency'. Looking past the lack of clarity and transparency in the delegation of 'roles' of designated, nodal and committee officers, the 'emergency' clause on its own allows for much subjectivity and power to authorise censorship! This has become more evident from random and unannounced blocking/take down of sites especially post landmark events such as the Mumbai bombings of 2008 and Assam exodus of 2012, and at the behest of politicians, pawns, production houses etc.
By Manasa Priya Vasudevan