Can there be universal education and skilling in India without Net Neutrality? What happens to the dream of Digital India for all if net neutrality is voided?
These are the two questions I’d like to think go to the core of the moral argument for (or against) net neutrally.
Economics and business may provide us with a range of answers – each of them sound in their own logic. But beyond the cold world of capitalism (of which the pure form exists only in books of hypothesis and fiction) lies the world of people. People willing to work hard to make their lives better, smarter and more fun. People willing to say – give us a fair chance and we can change the world. People with talent who have been denied access to knowledge which lay in ivory towers for centuries, and even when it came to books, it was too expensive. Or unapproachable.
Net Neutrality for me simply means that every student, every teacher and every school can access anything online at the same cost. It means that the poorest student and the richest student have the same resources available once they are online. It means that the most distant student trapped in snowy mountains pays the same for connectivity as the one who lives in an urban city centre.
Is that utopian? Possibly. Can it be done? Yes. Are there hurdles and problems to this approach? Yes of course. The path from parity on the net is not straightforward at all. Why would a service provider (for example) even offer to lay lines all the way up to the snowy mountains for that last student? Or even for a small village? Would it make sense to invest in either cables or a tower for remote areas? Without value added services and preferential packages would the service providers have enough incentives to invest in quality infrastructure? Who bears the higher costs of servicing remote areas – should that be subsidised by those in more densely populated areas?
Service providers entered the businesses of telecommunications knowing the nature of the market. They bid on the spectrum knowing the realities of their economic models. They are in the business of providing essential infrastructure. They must be held to service standards and to pricing standards. In many countries utility companies are charged with reducing consumer bills every year in addition to maintaining full service delivery with zero faults (or repairs within six hours). India too needs to build similar expectations of the service providers – to first be a service provider with equal access to all.
To discriminate is to go against the spirit of the Indian constitution that decreed all to be equal. If there is a partitioning of infrastructure then knowledge is partitioned – and as an educator that is abhorrent to me. Some would argue – is it not the same as a toll road? Some have faster roads and we pay extra toll for it till the cost of the road and it’s maintenance is covered. Good argument, but no. Not the way it is going to work here. In this portioning of the net not only are the speeds different but there are agreements at the back end between providers that change the content you – the user – will see. When net neutrality is voided, you are paying less to see cheaper free content which may be quite awful, useless even compared to when you pay more. When you pay more you may have access to other content subject to their agreements. This is manipulative. This is restriction of information and while one cannot accuse any one of mal-intent it is not difficult to imagine a rogue service provider ensuring only one kind of information filters through. The nut cases could buy their way into our minds. Learning can be skewed.
This is not that far fetched. We have seen what happens with TV channels. As the quality of programming drops, and charges continue to rise, we also see that providers they continue to demand more for similar content. Even if you have bought the ‘best’ package, you cannot have the ‘new’ content unless you pay more. (There are some brilliant articles out there on how the TV industry was damaged when neutrality was voided – here I only speak as a viewer, a paying customer)
What does that mean for a poor student? Or a simple lecturer in a small university? Are they to be subject to lesser content forever so that their work remains below par? Even if they have access to academic papers (and even if that is free) how will they be able to connect it to the larger reality, to realpolitik in their area if they only have partial sight of it. Only because the net was not neutral? To void net neutrality would be to reintroduce the caste system where only the elite had access to knowledge and the rest to their areas of vocation or skill. This is what we are trying to defeat – the divisions have done enough harm.
There is a real chance that equal access to the net will mean that all costs are shared by all users so that the price is the same for all. But that is how India operates for all it’s goods that are standardised essentials – there is a Maximum Retail Price printed on each package. These packages also bear an ISI mark. This is to ensure that the same standard quality product is available to all at the same price. If net neutrality is voided, then in principle this should be scrapped too. Let the the hungry in remote places pay more for their biscuits and soap.
The simple fact is that we have 1 million people entering the workforce every month in India. We need them skilled, literate and numerate. We need net connectivity to make this happen on an ongoing basis. With restricted access we will be shortchanging them by restricting their opportunities to access faster progress, more knowledge and better opportunities. Net neutrality is essential to the current national goals of growth, and is essential to offer a fair deal to the demographic surge that wants to return a dividend.