Network Neutrality, Indian-Style: The Connected vs. the Unconnected

Long after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled on network neutrality, the issue has arisen half way around the world India where everything is different, that is, except the basic argument that Internet service providers should not discriminate based upon content. The FCC sided with network neutrality and that was a victory in part because so many Americans are online and by global standards, wealthy. Things are different in India.

To begin with, only 20% of India’s 1.3 billion people have internet access leaving almost a billion people offline. Delivering access to these people is difficult for a variety of factors including poverty, infrastructure, and literacy. Nonetheless, many nonprofit agencies, corporations and the Indian government are working to connect them through a variety of methods and it is here that we run up against network neutrality.

Facebook began offering a service called Free Basics that offered limited access to Facebook-selected websites for free. Network neutrality advocates attacked the service as a gross violation of network neutrality principles because Facebook and its service provider partners were controlling user access to content by essentially filtering it. They also complained about the security of Facebook’s services, its effect on competition and monopoly, and user privacy. They want Facebook to provide an unrestricted service with greater safeguards. Their complaints raised concerns at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India which is reviewing the status and legality of the service. All of these concerns and more can be seen if you start reading #FreeBasics.

Unfortunately the conversation is largely one-sided. Lots of people are talking about this issue online. The Connected already have access and understandably their priority is unrestricted Internet access for users. The Unconnected however are voiceless in these venues because they don’t have access. Moreover, while they certainly are able to understand the concepts of discrimination behind network neutrality its tangible application in their lives is somewhat removed. Let’s look at this a different way:

Think of Free Basics as a private bus service with defined routes. The Unconnected are people who lack their own transport (Internet access) while the Connected own their own transport (Internet Service Provider). Not everyone can afford their own vehicle. The Unconnected are likely glad to have a way to get from point A to point B, even if they have to use an ID card to board the bus. The Connected would really like the bus routes to go everywhere so that they could get rid of their vehicles. If there is sufficient demand to visit certain locations and the bus route refuses to stop there, it’s likely that some other enterprising bus company will open up a route. Public transportation would be fantastic for everyone except perhaps for the companies that make, sell, service, and repair vehicles (telecommunications companies). There might be one other foe of public transportation: the government itself. If the Unconnected are unhappy with it, facilitating their freedom of movement or the freedom of expression online through access might not be welcome. One billion unhappy people online can write a lot of angry emails.

Free Basics is not the best solution nor even necessarily a good solution but with 80% of Indians unconnected, no solution should be arbitrarily dismissed. The Unconnected and the Connected want the same things; they just prioritize them differently and the voices online are all coming from the 20% of Indians who have Internet access. The United Nations has repeatedly emphasized of extending Internet access to the Unconnected and it is a centerpiece of development policy. Since most Indians number among the Unconnected, shouldn’t services that advance access receive support?

Originally published at