On differential pricing and net neutrality (and a bit about broadband also)
This is a copy of the submission I sent to TRAI on its consultation paper on differential pricing for data packs
Dear Ms Kotwal,
I’m an final year MBBS student and a volunteer of several organizations including Mozilla and Free Software Movement. I am a stakeholder in the consultation paper on differential pricing for data services because for the past 8 years (from 9th standard) I have been a student of the Internet more than I have been a student of my school or college.
I am not an economist, market watcher, politician, TSP, or journalist. So I do not have any expertise on the market economics of Internet access.
But I am an Internet-based learner, student, web content creator, blogger, volunteer, and educator. So I do have some experience in learning and content creation online.
First of all, I would like to say that the Internet is like nothing else under the Sun, natural or man-made. There is no true analogy to the Internet, nothing that even comes close to an analogy. Therefore, every attempt by anyone (supporting net neutrality or supporting differential pricing) at comparing Internet to something else in order to understand the situation slightly easier is flawed at best and that should be kept in mind all the time.
The Internet is a network built by a very large number of computers (and soon other smart devices like watches, cars, and what not) throughout the World. As the people who built those devices, human beings are the prime beneficiary of the Internet. And all that the Internet does can be reduced to one simple thing - Internet reduces the distance between people (or things).
Many of the problems that the Internet solves are by virtue of the fact that Internet reduces the distance barrier between the problem and the solution. Learning becomes easier on the Internet because it is faster than a trip to the library. Job search is easier because it is quicker than going to each office and asking if they have vacancies. Mails become e-mails. A consultation paper can be uploaded on a website at 5pm today and anyone can download it at 5:05, read through it till 6 and take part with an email at 6:30.
But I am going to talk only about one aspect of the Internet in this submission - Internet as a medium for education.
There is a large amount of knowledge that human beings have built through the past. Maybe 10,000 years back all we knew was how to grow food. This was knowledge. And this knowledge was preserved probably by transferring it by mouth (and hands-on practice) to future generations. But this oro-aural transmission had the limitation that the people involved in teaching and learning had to be physically together.
Then we discovered writing. With that, whoever had access to knowledge could get papyrus scrolls and ink (or paper and pen later) and document their knowledge which could then travel to learners in lieu of the author themselves. With the invention of printing, one author could be heard by hundreds or thousands or millions of learners. Now, the limitations became that of putting in the effort to get books printed and distributing it to people. Although, theoretically, anyone could write a book, not everyone would get a distributor to create physical copies and carry it to people.
And then came computers and the Internet. Let us call this the digital revolution. It changed the entire equation drastically. What was earlier 1 kg of paper made from wood taken from forests became a few cheap electrons. Creating a copy of an article or a book became a near-instant process. Transport of knowledge happens literally at light-speed through underground cables. Now, anyone could “write a book” and rather than relying on a physical publisher they can rely on a digital publisher to host their book (by book here I mean, any knowledge they have) online. (They could even host it themselves, if only their computer remained online 24x7 and I’ll talk about this later).
The costs of publishing digitally is so low that there are many services online that allows anyone to publish free of cost. Or, for those who desire more control, they can buy cheap hosting options to publish themselves.
Now, I would like to digress a bit. Academic knowledge was traditionally delivered to learners by printed journal publishers. With the cost of printing and distributing, the publishers also had the right to ask subscribers some money in return of the knowledge. Scientists who are too absorbed in their research work to care about publishing results would take the easy route and hand their work over to publishers to get it delivered widely.
So, when Internet came reducing the cost and effort of publishing, we would think that distributing academic knowledge would have become easier with/without publishers. But instead, publishing houses still hold monopoly over distribution of knowledge. And they continue to charge large sums of money for access to the knowledge that has been handed over to them by scholars (many of them funded by Governments).
Today, when I am trying to learn more about researches and studies that are mentioned in my medicine textbook, I often hit paywalls (pages which ask me to pay money, commonly about $30 per article). So, I, a future doctor, and my hundreds or thousands of potential patients are denied the benefit of that knowledge. It also prevents scholars from building on top of the work done already by others.
So powerful institutions (like publishers) can influence factors (like cost of access to knowledge) in ways that are detrimental to the general public but nevertheless good for themselves.
But why do scholars have to rely on expensive journals? Why don’t they publish their research work themselves or in open-access journals? Because of what I call the “discoverability” problem.
While Internet solved the problems of distance and cost, it did not just keep the problem of discovering new resources of knowledge unsolved, but also exaggerated it. In the past, discovering knowledge might have been as easy as going to a library and asking the librarian the topic you’re looking for and they would guide you to the section where you can pull out a book that you would find the information you need in.
But today, there are often hundreds of webpages on that exact topic, sometimes with conflicting information. And it is important that these exist and that more of them come into existence often. We must utilize the ease of publishing that the Internet gives to allow anyone to share whatever knowledge that they have - be it a 10 year old student who has discovered how to make bubbles with soap and water or a 60 year old scholar who has discovered the structure of a cell protein, a farmer who has discovered the optimum way to grow crops or a teacher who has just created a beautiful lesson plan for their students. But with such diverse and large information source, how do you get access to the right knowledge?
There are many ways to go about looking for knowledge on the Internet. One would be going to search engines (like Google or Bing) and entering search terms related to the topic you’re looking for. Another would be going to popular websites on the topic you know and search inside them (For example, for medical articles I would go to a dedicated search engine like PubMed). And for current affairs or news, most people on the Internet rely on either the website of their favourite newspaper or the links shared by their friends on social networks (like Facebook, Twitter, etc). Even messaging services like WhatsApp are used to spread a lot of news and to coordinate various events or activities (my batch in college has a WhatsApp group which we use to discuss academics, college work, etc).
If we take a careful look at the above mentioned strategies for reaching a new knowledge resource on the Internet, we can see that as a content publisher I have many options to get people access to my knowledge. One would be to create a website of my own and fill my webpages with search terms such that when people search for that topic they find my page among search results. Another option would be to put my knowledge in a website which people usually come to looking for knowledge (like Wikipedia). Yet another option is to put my knowledge on my own webpage and share it through social media like Facebook and hope that more and more people will share it such that it would reach the “newsfeed” of someone who would need that information.
The latter strategy is more useful for news and current affairs while the other strategies are more useful in sharing more permanent knowledge (like the anatomy of epidural space).
This gives immense power to 1) Search engines 2) Social networks 3) Already popular websites in that they can influence what knowledge people have access to and what they don’t.
Therefore, it becomes important that this power is not misused by anyone and the legal and societal framework anywhere in the world has not grown enough to make sure to keep those powers in check.
For example, Google search could be designed to not show results from Indian businesses when someone online searches for things to buy. In this case, Indian business would be suffering by not being “discoverable”. But they probably do not have a legal recourse in this situation. A web search (using duckduckgo which is an alternate search engine) showed me that Google has indeed been sued in “antitrust” lawsuits in American and European courts in the past.
With social networks, the problem is termed “censorship”. Social networks like Facebook have been accused of censorship multiple times in the past for removing posts made by users or not showing the posts to all of a person’s friends by artificially manipulating newsfeeds.
And popular websites like Wikipedia have also been accused of internal politics that lead to under representation of sides or views.
We do not have a framework to prevent these kind of problems. And I do not expect laws like those either. But we can be aware of these problems and make sure we do not make the powerful more powerful.
And that is the reason why (in answer to the first question in the consultation paper) differential pricing should never be allowed. The very act of differential pricing is designed to change the consumption pattern of consumers. It is designed to make people visit the websites that are priced lower more frequently than others. And when people visit one website more than another, it shifts the power of controlling knowledge discoverability to the former website.
For example, in this very consultation paper, Facebook used its power of controlling knowledge discoverability to send a large number of ill-informed responses to TRAI. But, since alternate social networks existed, others still became aware of the actual process and sent more appropriate responses. Imagine a few years from now, if, by the name of affordable access, Facebook becomes free to a large number of poor Indians who visit it frequently. It does create the possibility of more distortion of such processes. Since TRAI doesn’t believe in majoritarian view, this consultation process was unaffected. But what would happen to processes that are majoritarian by design, like the democratic election?
There are many TSPs giving differential pricing packs with preference to WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a hugely popular instant messaging service already. But the terms and conditions of WhatsApp prevents programmers from using WhatsApp to send messages automatically. I received a cease and desist notification from WhatsApp for creating a bot (a program that responds to commands interactively) that would enable people to search Wikipedia using WhatsApp. Now, by having differential pricing packs for WhatsApp, TSPs are encouraging people to continue using WhatsApp. And this blocks competitors with better features and better terms of services (enabling people to build on top of them services like my Wikipedia searching bot) from gaining users. Gradually, this is conceding WhatsApp more and more power of controlling visibility. (It might also be relevant to remember that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook).
Airtel is apparently running a music streaming service called Wynk (which I haven’t used) and has differential pricing data packs which allow free streaming of Wynk (which I’ve not used either because I’m not an Airtel customer). This is giving Wynk the power of controlling visibility (of music in this case). Singers and performers might be discriminated against (in terms of visibility) inside Wynk and we would not be able to prevent that. And this is also giving Airtel the power of controlling visibility in that it owns Wynk and in that it is deciding to give free access to Wynk.
And we should not make the powerful more powerful.
But then, you ask, are their alternate methods of providing free internet access to consumers?
Although I haven’t studied economics other than by reading some books about it online, I know that for something to be free, it must either be abundantly available (like water) or the “free” would refer to only a limited amount (like free samples of medicine that doctors get, free gifts you get when buying a much more expensive thing, or in the case of Internet - free access to some web sites or limited free access to the entire Internet)
We must ideally make the Internet as abundantly available as water. I do not have the data, but I believe there are at least some parts of Internet access that are very expensive (like laying and maintaining towers, phone lines, etc). I have read from other submissions that the Universal Service Obligation Fund is largely not utilized and we could use some of this money to grow more towers and pipelines. It also makes sense to put money into building Internet infrastructure like we put money into building roads. Internet cables are roads for data and it therefore makes perfect sense for even the Government to spend some money in building Internet infrastructure (which I believe they are doing).
But still, there might be running costs that neither USOF, nor Government can take care of. (The Government might be able to put an extra tax called universal Internet tax in order to cover these costs. But let’s not go into welfare state principle). Among our options left, we have limited data free Internet and unlimited data free websites.
Since you have read the previous paragraphs about not making the powerful more powerful, you know that I am already in favour of limited data free Internet over unlimited data free websites. The former ensures that TSPs don’t go bankrupt while making sure no one website becomes too powerful while the latter goes against those.
It also beats my mathematics ability in figuring out how TSPs can provide a service like Free Basics (with some websites) at unlimited data while not being able to provide a limited data free Internet pack (the data limit here can be set to the average that they expect a user to use while they’re using the unlimited Free Basics pack). Suppose a user takes up 200MB per month on Free Basics. The TSPs should then have no difficulty in giving 200MB of free data for the entire Internet to them. The same user could now visit the same services provided by the same Facebook (or other services on Free Basics) and it would make no difference. On the other hand, in this plan, the user could also visit other websites which are not part of Free Basics.
I have heard Facebook saying that such a fixed limit plan would make the experience bad for the user because they might run out of data just when they need it (Murphy’s law). But, in that case, TSPs can give an option to borrow some more free data with a quick USSD code or SMS message (like many TSPs already do to get some quick balance). If my mathematical understanding of average is right, the people who request extra data would even out with the people who don’t even utilize the free data they have thus making both equivalent for TSPs. If this is an unsustainable business model, then so is Free Basics unsustainable.
Facebook also calls Free Basics a ramp or on-boarding platform to the real Internet. I like the concept of introducing Internet to people who would have never used Internet otherwise. But in practice, this turns out different from the expectation. Reliance seems to be interested in using “Free Facebook” as an ad line to attract well-off people to buy Reliance SIM cards. This could also be the reason why despite Facebook saying Free Basics is open to partnerships from any TSP in India, no large TSP like Airtel has joined hands with Free Basics. Also, there’s no reason I can think of why this on-boarding platform cannot run on a limited free Internet pack (according to my calculations above)
Just because Free Basics gets it wrong, doesn’t mean the idea of an on-boarding platform to the Internet is bad. TSPs can be encouraged to provide a limited free data plan to first time Internet users. They can also use apps like the Free Basics app on android to showcase websites with low data usage.
I do not think the experience of running out of data will be so bad that new Internet users will turn away from the Internet forever. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be on Internet today and so wouldn’t be a lot of others. Anyhow, that bad experience is much better than making the powerful more powerful.
Another argument I have seen is that by allowing TSPs to get money from content providers in return of allowing free access to their website, customer doesn’t have to pay. But, with my limited economic knowledge, I think that a content provider can pay TSP only money that someone else pays the content provider. This is usually the customer themselves or ad publishers who are in turn paid by customers or investors who in turn make money from businesses off customers. So, in essence, what is happening when a TSP takes money from a content provider and gives free access to that website is an indirect taxation of people (which I was suggesting in the earlier paragraph the Government could do itself).
Yes, my ideas will cause the poorest of the poor to not be getting Internet in February 2016. But I am not sure how poor one has to be in India to not be able to afford any Internet. For these people below Internet poverty line, we can have Public Distribution System giving away Internet coupons at low cost along with rice and sugar if they present their ration card and GPRS phone. (This is not a joke suggestion)
Although I do not have statistics, I am sure that we have enough economic capacity to give that subsidy.
Additionally, there are some more things that we can do to bring more people online.
1) Enable self hosting of websites. With IPv6 gradually rolling out, I think we can make “static IPv6 IP” a criterion for broadband. (I could be wrong here because I’m no engineer). With cheap static IPs, more and more people can host their websites for very cheap on their own Internet connections. For example, local grocery stores who have a computer running when the shop is open can also run a web server on the same computer to take online orders from customers. This would be more incentive for people to come online.
2) Enable people to be content creators (and not just consumers): By protecting net neutrality, TRAI can give an incentive for people to create content of their own. For example, in the local grocery example above, the shop would rather not waste time on setting up a web server if there is no net neutrality and their website cannot get visitors. But, the very fact that on the Internet today this hypothetical website is equivalent in access to the largest of online retailers might be enough motivation for them to start a website of their own.
3) Disable the ability to silence people: If there is any provision (QoS?) by which TRAI can prevent TSPs from arbitrarily blocking websites without a transparent process, please do so. If TRAI has the authority to make licensing required for OTT services, TRAI can also ask them not to censor people and take action against violations of this trust.
With the unprecedented number of people who came out in support of net neutrality in both the consultation papers, I am sure India’s Internet future will be bright if TRAI now chooses to do the things with the long term best interest in mind.
Affiliation disclosure: I am also a volunteer of the savetheinternet movement but I am making this submission of my own volition.
Akshay S Dinesh
Mysore Medical College,
Google antitrust lawsuits:
Facebook censorship: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/facebook-censorship/
Wikipedia hegemony of asshole consensus: http://adanewmedia.org/2015/04/issue7-peake/