Bengaluru/By Vishnu Raja/The on-going brawl over telcos move to charge consumers differently and discriminate in favor of some apps opposed to others, had once existed in the past, but only in a realm of hypothetical discussions. The debate is becoming realistic as people in India begin to realize the importance of net neutrality (NN) and the ‘dangers’ this may pose to consumers.
ISPs, globally, have a track record of such arbitrary actions and conflicting rationale against the spirit of what emerged out of the mere idea of open culture — the internet.
Airtel Zero is a data scheme launched recently in India that will allow app developers – big or small – to promote their apps by making them available to end-users free of cost. Since India is the fastest growing smartphone market in Asia, Telecom companies see this as a big opportunity to maximize revenue by charging app developers. While advocates of free internet see this as a violation of NN, officials at Airtel said its decision has nothing do with the net neutrality and “bypassing” regulations is not possible as the law of the land, under which the telcos operate, is “sacrosanct”.
In India, there are no well formulated laws concerning internet freedom and it is fair to say, in the absence of such laws, telecom players can easily manipulate markets in many ways.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is in the process of formulating guidelines concerning internet neutrality and there is a movement gaining ground to file a mass petition.
A quick compilation of past instances where ISPs globally exercised unqualified supremacy over market shares will help realize what we’re in for:
1) Vonage Voip Services – Vonage is a New Jersey-based company offering voice-calling facility over a broadband network. In 2004, Madison River Communications, now a part of CenturyLink, denied its customers’ access to Vonage voice calling facility. The fact that the ISP was directly involved was never disclosed until Vonage found out on their own, when customers started complaining.
2) Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (United Arab Emirates) – Another case of heavy-handed decision to block VOIP services occurred in Dubai, in the late 90’s when the government-run monopoly Emirates Telecommunications Corporation blocked a communication port used by VOIP calling services. The consumers were pretty much left anguished at the whim of the service provider.
3) In 2013, America’s telecom giants, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile revoked user access to Google Wallet on Nexus devices, while all three ISPs were involved in the development of a competing mobile payments joint venture called Isis (not to be mistaken for the terrorist group).
4) In another incident of NN violation, as demonstrated by entrepreneur Colin Nederk in this video , a service provider began throttling connection speeds with traffic coming in through LEVEL3.
5) The worst case of net neutrality violation is ISPs interfering with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). In 2014, GOLDEN FROG, a VPN service, submitted a report to FCC on how its secure channel was compromised. Here’s an excerpt from the report:
… This broadband provider is overwriting the content of users’ communications and actively blocking STARTTLS encryption. This is a man-in-the-middle attack that prevents customers from using the applications of their choosing and directly prevents users from protecting their privacy…
The issue needs to be treated with utmost seriousness. Because if ISPs are allowed to blatantly turn off encryption, it essentially means they can detect VPNs easily and eventually block such services leaving everyone exposed to vulnerabilities.
In the US, when the a need for building laws around internet freedom was felt, the FCC stepped in and gathered all collaterals necessary to fight out. So, how proactive will TRAI be in dealing with internet freedom is a matter of great curiosity for all interested parties.
(H/T Techdirt, PC World)
Vishnu Raja is a Bangalore-based contributor for technology issues.