What is Network Neutrality?
Module 3: Access to the Internet
Network neutrality — or “net neutrality” — refers to the principle that there should be no discrimination in the treatment of Internet data and traffic, based on the device, content, author, origin and/or destination of the content, service or application.(1) In other words, ISPs should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favour of a particular application, website or service.(2) Discrimination in this regard may relate to affecting information in a way that halts, slows or otherwise tampers with the transfer of any data, except for a legitimate network management purpose, such as easing congestion or blocking spam.(3)
The 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression describes two key ways in which net neutrality may be effected(4):
- Paid prioritisation schemes — where providers give preferential treatment to certain types of internet traffic over others for payment or other commercial benefit.
- Zero-rating — which is the practice of not charging for internet data associated with accessing a particular application or set of services while such data is charged to access other services or applications.
In various countries in Asia, there has been significant debate about access to zero‑rated content, as particularly social networking sites offer some measure of free access to users. On the one hand, the social media companies that promote them argue that zero-rating provides access to people who might not otherwise have been able to access the internet and can serve as a gateway to users to understand the opportunities that the internet can offer. In practice, however, these people often get stuck just accessing the privileged services and, indeed, may even think that these comprise the whole internet. On the other hand, zero‑rating leads to unfair competition and can distort users’ perceptions by only allowing access to particular sites.(5)
India is among the jurisdictions to have taken action against zero rating, effectively banning it. A 2016 regulation prohibited Internet access providers from offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content, with only a limited exception for zero rating for emergency services.(6) The regulation was enacted following an active campaign by digital rights activists in India. This was motivated largely by Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which activists criticised for giving free access to only a restricted number of websites pre-selected by Facebook rather than offering broader Internet access for the poor.(7) India has since maintained its zero-rating ban in updated net neutrality rules.(8)