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This article has been written by Kiran Krishnan, pursuing the Diploma in Cyber Law, FinTech Regulations and Technology Contracts from LawSikho.

Introduction

In today’s world, anybody with some skill or a business idea willing to provide services or carry out business online can do so by creating a website. The next step in furthering this endeavour is to reach out to the target audience. The only way this would be possible is through the internet. The internet is a place where you will see a wide range of information shared between networks. It is basically a system that on a global scale connects computer networks across the world. The types of networks involved could be public, private, business or government among other things and through these networks information such as emails, calls, file sharing can be carried and shared. In essence, the internet is a resource that belongs to everyone and is owned by no-one.  

Understanding the background

Now, the initial steps in creating a website include buying or registering a domain name. In this process, costs are incurred. Once, the website is created, the concerned company or content provider will want to launch it on the internet so that it can reach out to the target audience/ prospective clients. That is where an Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) comes in. 

What is an ISP? What does it do?

An ISP is basically a company or organisation that provides access to the internet. It offers to provide an internet connection to companies or individuals who intend to provide their services or content online. At the time of launching its website, a company may seek the services of an ISP and in turn, the ISP charges the company for giving it access to the internet. This is how companies use the internet to reach out to the end-user. 

Let us consider the following hypothetical situation: Betflix is the world’s largest streaming entertainment/Over the top (“OTT”) content platform offering online streaming from a collection of films and tv series. Betflix uses the services of ABC.inc to launch its platform on the internet to worldwide audiences. It is enjoying a large market share in the OTT segment. Recently, a new company by the name of Zizu launched its own OTT platform and offers similar services to Betflix. In no time, Zizu achieves success mainly because of its innovative platform design and sleek video marketing. Threatened by potential competition from Zizu, Betflix offers some money to ABC.inc in exchange for blocking ZIzu’s content on the internet with the intention that users will not be able to have a good experience on Zizu and many might eventually jump ship. Is this fair or unfair? Should this be allowed to happen? 

Net neutrality                  

Before we delve into the above-mentioned question, let us understand something called “Net Neutrality”. Net neutrality is a concept that requires that any or all content on the internet must be treated the same and not discriminated against by ISPs or governments. The internet is for everyone and everyone should be allowed equal access to the internet. ISPs are just a pathway to providing the users’ access to the internet and they should not misuse or take advantage of their position. 

Access to any content on the internet must be allowed on an equal basis to the user from the ISP. There may be exceptions such as censorship or prohibition of access of certain websites by law. 

Advantages and disadvantages of net neutrality

Different countries are at different stages in terms of their opinion and position on net neutrality. For instance, in the USA, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) repealed the regulation of net neutrality on June 11, 2018. However, in the European Union (“EU”), the principle of net neutrality has been in regulation for a few years.

The justification of showing which country is right in their regulation or lack of regulation or recognition of net neutrality is complicated. Following are the advantages and disadvantages of net neutrality:

Advantages

Freedom

Let’s say you are in a mood to shop online. You run a search and you will be presented with a wide range of websites including shopping aggregator websites, shopping websites, second-hand products websites, etc. Many or few of these websites will be known to you while a few other websites will be unknown to you. However, you will have the option to view all the content on the internet and conclude based on the wide range of options from the wide range of websites. Net neutrality ensures this since ISPs, under its regulation, are obligated to ensure that equal access to all the websites is provided to the users. Obviously, no illegal content can be viewed by users.

Equal opportunity and fair competition

With the help of the net neutrality principle, small or relatively new companies will have an equal chance to compete with giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook. These small companies will not have to pay exorbitant amounts to ISPs to get access to the internet. 

No Misuse of position by ISPs

Net neutrality ensures that ISPs, despite being the companies that provide internet access to the consumers cannot misuse their position. For instance, ISPs cannot ban or block web pages of websites if the user has not bought a specific plan of the ISP.       

Disadvantages

Constraints on upgrade

In recent years, internet services such as online streaming of videos, gaming platforms, etc. have emerged thereby adding emphasis on bandwidth. To enable high bandwidth, the ISPs will be required to spend more. However, the net neutrality regulation makes this a difficult task.    

Abuse of freedom

Individuals or organisations can easily misuse or abuse freedom or free speech. With the net neutrality principle in regulation, it will be difficult for ISPs to prevent or stop those who are abusing free speech. ISPs will also find it difficult to tackle cyberbullying. 

Net Neutrality in various countries

China

The People’s Republic of China does not regard the concept or principle of net neutrality. The Government rather uses ISPs to regulate the content on the internet. They block access to certain foreign websites and also play an active role in the censorship of the internet domestically. This action is famously known as “the Great Firewall of China”. 

India

There are no laws regarding net neutrality in India. However, in 2018, the Department of Telecommunications (“DOT”) came up with rules approving recommendations from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (“TRAI”) supporting NN in India.

USA

In the USA, the FCC repealed the regulation of net neutrality on June 11, 2018, which means they no longer govern the provisions of net neutrality.

Conclusion

The internet is growing at a rapid pace. It is increasingly becoming an asset with more and more benefits of the user. With net neutrality implemented, all websites/networks can exchange information without worrying about incurring additional costs. If there is no net neutrality, ISPs may be encouraged to regulate internet traffic with a prime focus on making money for themselves rather than providing access fairly. Net neutrality does indeed bring some issues with it but if a middle ground can be found which satisfies the end-user, content provider and ISP, it will definitely be worth it. Just as Cindy Cohn says, “Your ability to access a website depends on your desire to access the website and not the deals that the intermediaries have made with each other.” 

References


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