Why Breaking the Internet makes us Human

A MYTH IS BORN

Is neutrality the social default? Is it desirable?

The simple answer is: No. In fact, I would venture to say that the very concept of neutrality is at odds with human nature because absolute neutrality predicates absolute objectivity which is unrealistic. Each and every single human action ultimately reflects contextual choices or biases which serve as social heuristics, and thus may not always be rational.

Absolute neutrality is native only to machines

And this is critical to understand because several social constructs would fail to exist in a neutral environment. Furthermore, neutrality seems to be incompatible with moderately successful economic systems such as capitalism and its associated mechanics, like free markets, because it is often misinterpreted as equity. The concept of social equity as manifested by socialism and communism is deeply divisive and the failures of these movements casts doubt on the promise of neutrality.

NEUTRALITY IN THE REAL WORLD

The trading of any natural resource or commodity such as diamonds or oil is a perfect example to discount the hypothesis of neutrality working on its own with no external intervention whatsoever. The reality is that although neutrality is an ideal, its absence breeds exploitation and there are only two viable processes to resolve such issues -

  1. Regulation
  2. Market-led Intervention

Regulation offers a logical solution to such dilemmas because, as I've shared previously in The Regulator - A Balancing Act, “the purpose of an ideal regulatory agency is to provide structure to an industry or section of society where the lack of it would prove detrimental to its long-term development.” The independent decisions taken by the regulator establish a precedent and thus promote fair practice and healthy competition in the entire sector.

The alternative to this approach is market-led intervention which can be championed by any stakeholder in that sector. This process usually revolves around building external consensus to the point that it becomes the norm. Its success, however, is dependent on a variety of factors such as -

  1. Strength of Public Opinion
  2. Industry Pivot
  3. Time to achieve Consensus
  4. Regulatory Response

NEUTRALITY MEETS THE INTERNET

Recent events such as Comcast vs. Netflix and Marriott vs. Personal Hotspots have piqued public interest because the debate on neutrality has finally shifted to a resource which affects the vast majority of people on an everyday basis. The European parliament has already unequivocally decided to limit the power of internet service providers to charge third parties for faster network access or any preferential treatment but the FCC is still dragging its feet on net neutrality.

Although the neutrality debate has been raging in the US and Europe for months now, it finally made its way to India this December when an Indian telecom company, Airtel, decided to charge for VoIP services such as Skype, Viber, etc. This was an unprecedented move because it affected nearly 200 million subscribers in a market with low internet penetration and explosive growth. It is also important to note that internet in India is a game changer and force for social good, which has the ability to lift people out of poverty, provide access to quality education, render financial services, etc.

Credit: FSMK

If we were to use consider regulation or market-led intervention to resolve this issue we would arrive at 2 possible outcomes -

  1. The regulator steps in and rules in favor of net neutrality. As a result, the telecom companies would raise prices either by tier, category or some other grouping mechanic to recoup missed revenue or capitalize on excessive use via Over The Top (OTT) services such as Skype.
  2. Alternatively, if self-regulation occurs in the market then data would be treated as a man-made resource or commodity and begin exhibiting characteristics normally found in oil or gold such as differentiated pricing for specific blends or quality. In the context of data, the default mobile experience would be a throttled or filtered internet connection with an extra amount being paid as surcharge to unlock neural status.

The current global regulatory vacuum on net neutrality represents a viable business opportunity to exploit and this isn't an isolated experience since it’s part of a broader defense mechanic to combat innovation and shrinking margins. However, telecom companies would be wise to rely on alternative tactics such as service bundling, family plans, unified roaming, excess data cross-over, plan modularity, etc. if they wish to profit from mobility trends.

OUR CHOICE TO MAKE

Credit: Sartaj Anand

The issue of net neutrality is unimaginably important because -

The internet is the only infinite resource that we have been able to create and successfully exploit.

We decided to break the internet because there was enough commercial interest to further exploit it. However, once consensus has been reached on how this resource and connectivity to it is governed, the conversation will immediately shift to the genuine opportunities that exist from building the internet as a context rich system. This is critical as it will modify our present understanding of the internet as a fire hose with no allocation intelligence to one with embedded intelligence, real time responsiveness and personalization. For example, Person A arrives at his or her workplace and the internet is able to determine the same and automatically shifts to the work profile. This profile appropriately reprioritizes and optimizes the distribution and quality of bandwidth for Person A, in that context, to help them achieve their objective. These changes could be as simple as making YouTube load slower or deliver rock solid Skype group video calls in ultra high definition. However, when Person A is taking a break or driving back home or going for an evening run the internet connectivity keeps shifting, learning, evolving and delivering a myriad of experiences preemptively.