Over the past year or so, you have probably heard that a contentious ‘fight’ about net neutrality was taking place in the US. You might have thought – “why should I care?” If you are a person who uses the internet for more than five minutes a day, you should care because it may soon affect you. Whether it is checking your emails while stuck in Dhaka traffic, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram posts on your phone, or watching YouTube or Netflix videos at home – all of those things are likely to be affected by how this issue plays out in the US.
It is very hard to describe the complexities of the overlapping structures that form the internet, but a useful analogy would be a complicated system of water pipes. You might only be consuming the data and services (water) but if there is only one pipe that delivers to you, you do not want someone else deciding what, how much, or when the water will be delivered. Net neutrality rules are a guarantee that others can’t decide this for you. These rules ensure that Nafisa from Dhaka visiting google.com using a specific Internet Service Provider (ISP) will not be treated any differently than Wahid browsing yahoo.com while using a different ISP during his weekend trip in Chittagong. It means that your ISP cannot choose to make a deal with Amazon Video to allow them to stream high-definition (HD) video to your TV and computers, but not allow you to watch Netflix in HD. Thus, ultimately, net neutrality is about fairness and equality on the internet.
What would a world without net neutrality look like? One such world would be where certain websites and services partner with internet providers and offer their own products at a cheaper rate, or at faster speeds. All the while slowing down their competition, or even charging them a higher fee. An extreme version might even see an internet provider completely blocking access to a website like Netflix because it supports a different competitor like YouTube.
This sounds horribly unfair does it not? If this sounds familiar, it is because parts of this horror story is already playing out in different countries around the world. Facebook’s Free Basics service allows Robi subscribers to browse Facebook for free in Bangladesh. Using Facebook’s Free Basics or its Internet.org service gives you a walled version of the internet in several other countries. It is a version of the internet that Facebook controls – where it sets and enforces rules as it chooses. Google has plans for its own version. Some people may argue that there is nothing wrong here: the under-served are getting access to the internet for free. Is it really? Or is it Facebook and Google ensuring that people only use their services, the race to capture the next billion users? If this was really about corporate social responsibility (CSR) and helping the poor and the under-served, then these corporations would support and subsidize the whole open internet, not just their own services.
I am an economist who works on applied microeconomic issues: how markets work, who pays what, and why. I can tell you that on the internet, if you are getting something for free now, you will either be paying in the future or you are the product. What does that entail? It means they will collect and aggregate personal information and then send targeted ads to you. Minute details of your likes and dislikes are stored and then sold on to companies who might want to sell you their products. It means a loss of control of your own personal data, your sense of privacy.
As an economist, I can also tell you that ‘efficiency’ and ‘fairness’ don’t always go hand in hand. In economic parlance, the argument for removing net neutrality rules is that it will improve efficiency. The argument that is offered goes along these lines: removing rules and regulations will allow companies to innovate, come up with new ideas and make the world better. Ideas like Facebook’s Free Basics. This ignores the belief that some rules are needed to prevent anarchy. That these giant corporations are not benevolent organizations – rather they seek to make profits. The understanding that a regular consumer is not as powerful, nor as well-informed as a giant corporation who may not have the consumer’s interests at heart. That in the early days of the web, we saw walled and gated versions of the internet, most famously offered by AOL. It was the decline of AOL that saw the explosive growth and rapid innovation that lead to the version of internet and the World Wide Web that we enjoy today.
Talking about net neutrality is important, because it does not exist in Bangladesh. There are no laws regulating ISPs asking them to treat all data equally. ISPs are more than welcome to pick winners and losers, or even coerce payments from others. This might not be important at this very moment, but it may soon become significantly so. ISPs already have broad powers to restrict access to websites under the directive of courts and governments and have done so in the past. We as consumers have little recourse but to protest loudly against such moves. Yet it is important to discuss and inform public opinion so that our leaders start taking consumer rights and concerns into consideration. We need strong laws and guidelines to ensure that our citizens are not harmed. We have made significant leaps in providing access to the general public. The government’s broad initiatives under Digital Bangladesh and Vision 2021 have resulted in more than 73 million internet users and 21 million people on social media by June 2017 according to internetworldstats.com. It is important that we do not forget to protect them too.
Which brings me to this following anecdote and my current headache. I often find it interesting to run internet speed tests whenever I feel things are not going fast enough as it should do. So back home in Dhaka for a brief two week break in the midst of wedding season, I took a few minutes to run a few speed tests to ensure that a certain unnamed ISP was sticking to its claim of offering me a dedicated 8 Mbps connection. Netflix’s own fast.com (great because it has a memorable name and thus easy to recommend to others) which I consider to be the gold standard informed me that I was getting speeds up to 6.9 Mbps. Considering I have a complicated situation with three different routers and an extender set up as the “network”, I found the results reasonable. Running a test on speedtest.net of course made me question the trustworthiness of my ISP. Consistent results of 25-28Mbps. 4x times what fast.com says it is. I wonder why they are so different? An attempt to game the system perhaps?
Addendum: Further investigation helped me figure out why the two offer such different results. Since speedtest.net uses local servers to run speed tests, what I was really measuring was the internet speed inside Bangladesh. Switching to an American or European server gives me the same result as fast.com.
This was adapted from an opinion piece I wrote for the Daily Star, titled Why should you care about net neutrality?