This discussion is pretty important to me. Our company, Jana.com
, enables advertisers in India to effectively zero-rate the Internet for their app through our mCent platform. So far, we are able to make sure our members have access to the wider, unencumbered, Internet as well by requiring the advertiser cover more of the user's data costs than just the use of their servers.
Things are very fluid in India, and we are attempting to change with them, all while trying to stay true to our mission to bring (truly) free Internet to emerging markets. In 2014, we enabled 480 TB of free data usage, and I believe we may have exceeded that already this year.
This experience has given me perhaps a different perspective on the net neutrality debate in the US versus the debate in India. I think it's fundamentally a different debate in India, and a much more serious one. I hope more people in the US will start paying attention to it, and I'm concerned our own net neutrality debate is clouding the issues there. In general terms, India has retained a pre-paid model for purchasing data. While you can find any pricing model in both countries, it's much more common here to have a set monthly plan. As a result, an average Indian subscriber is much more aware of the marginal cost of Internet usage *per site* than a US subscriber is.
This difference really amplifies the issue in India, and makes it - I think - basically a different discussion entirely. Here in the US, "net neutrality" typically refers to preferential bandwidth - a site may have less latency or load faster if the telecommunication companies prioritize the bandwidth of one server over another. In India, however, I think "net neutrality" is a bit more serious: there, it refers to a consumer's ability to afford to connect to a site (at any bandwidth).
seems like the type of thing that was conceived of in the US with the very best of intentions, but perhaps without quite thinking through all the details. I've never met him, but I tend to believe Mr. Zuckerberg is actually a very well-meaning person in addition to being quite intelligent; that doesn't mean I believe his ideas are always right, but I don't think he's ever had any ulterior motives getting involved in this. Nonetheless, as the pure idea of Internet.org
in the US encounters the reality of the Indian telecommunications market, I think you end up with something that maybe isn't quite so noble as we all might have hoped at the outset. By zero-rating only certain sites during the initial roll-out, you radically distort people's ability to see information on the Internet.
I do understand people's concerns about prioritizing bandwidth of one company over another in the US, but I have to say I think it's maybe not terribly important. Right now, there are a lot of ways for me to decrease the latency of my website relative to yours by spending more - I can buy bigger servers in more strategic locations through AWS, for example. I can also be clever with my engineering of the site and deliver a great experience using less data. Neither strikes me as "unfair." It might be Internet blasphemy to say this, but maybe Comcast charging companies a premium for 10% more bandwidth wouldn't bring about the apocalypse? I get that 10x the bandwidth would be a real issue, but the debate seems to be run by zealots: it's 0 difference or it's pure evil.
In contrast to my casual attitude toward the US-centric debate, I am very concerned about the Indian net neutrality debate, because I believe it's fundamentally a discussion about *connectivity*, not bandwidth.
The original vision of Internet.org
, I think, was connectivity for all. This is a vision I strongly support, and it's Jana's mission as well. We're doing the best we can as a rapidly growing startup, but it is true Mr. Zuckerberg still has tremendous amount more influence over this conversation than we do. Within this debate, we have to acknowledge that someone has to pay for data infrastructure. This is just economic reality, and it's really not helpful to ignore it or talk around it.
I do not believe this reality, however, means we can't still sincerely strive for the vision of connectivity for all. If speech written on Facebook can be (economically) free while speech written on my friend's server cannot be, that really does start to make me a bit uncomfortable. I really hope that isn't the world we end up in. In contrast, if speech written on Facebook is faster to load, a better experience, more social, flashier etc than on my friend's server, I think that's ok - I think that's just economic reality. When a big company spends a lot more money on a product than my friend, she shouldn't be too surprised when it ends up a better user experience.
I think either scenario is a possible outcome for Internet.org
, but I am really hoping for the latter. It's ok to acknowledge someone has to foot the bill to deliver data to users; I'm just really hoping we can find a way to do it in a way that guarantees connectivity to the unencumbered Internet - even if it's ultimately a bit slower or less flashy. I think it's a big mistake to vilify Facebook or Internet.org
or Mr. Zuckerberg when discussing this topic - the right approach is to be respectful and try to point the way to a better future.