India’s Internet needs to be as open as its elections

The world's largest democracy needs an open Internet.


Published Apr 23, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 12:09 am CDT

Last year at this time I was in Mumbai watching one of the most humbling expressions of free will that humanity has ever conceived. India’s election, the largest in human history, unfolded in ways that often clouded my American eyes with jealousy; I saw things happening that I wished were commonplace back home. Consistent electronic voting was one source of envy. The existence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was another.

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This is not an endorsement of that party, but of the system that allowed it to exist. It went from protests to forming the Delhi government to contesting in a plurality of districts in our species’ largest national election—all in less than 18 months. This was a huge win for the practice of democracy.

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But for a moment, let us pretend that it did not happen this way. Let’s construct a hypothetical world where the AAP was not allowed to exist—a metaphor that provides a crucial lesson about net neutrality and the open Internet, something that is currently under threat in India.

In this world, the Election Commission of India does not operate voting machines; private companies handle voting instead. Now here comes AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and his crowds of supporters wanting to contest in hundreds of districts. This is an enormous surge of traffic: Handling the registration of so many candidates, monitoring election law for this party’s actions, and updating thousands of voting machines places a large burden on the voting companies licensed by the Election Commission. So they decide to charge fees to the AAP, Congress, BJP, and other parties that want to contest the election on such a large scale. They also decide to charge for the order in which candidates are placed on the ballot, noting that names which appear first get slightly more votes. Congress and the BJP pay these fees—they are established parties with deep pockets—but the AAP cannot pay them because it’s so new. It settles by running in a few areas of India, but it otherwise drops out of races in hundreds of districts and loses priority in others.

Meanwhile, as a citizen, you still get to vote the same way. In fact, it’s easier in some cases because a few major parties in your district have gone the extra mile: They have paid the election companies to send ballots directly to your home for free! It’s just their names on those free mailed ballots, of course. If you wanted to have a ballot with all of the names, you’d have to walk to the polling station.

Does this hypothetical India bother you? It should. Does it reflect democracy? Sure, in the same way that “Democratic” in the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” does. That is why getting net neutrality right is so critical.

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Net neutrality is this same idea of democracy, but on the Internet. To adhere to net neutrality means that every piece of data should be treated equally, regardless of the source. Just like it should not matter which party a candidate is from, whether a piece of data comes from Google or from a new startup company, it should have the same path to reach users. Companies should not have to pay extra to get their data into “fast lanes” or face threats of having their data speeds throttled if they do not pay a premium.

Similarly, the notion of “zero rating” violates net neutrality. This is what Facebook’s and the Airtel Zero program propose: offering a small subset of the Internet for free. Like letting candidates pay to have just their ballots sent to your home, it excludes entities who cannot pay to give users that free experience. In a way, it creates two tiers of Internet: Will you pay to be in the “free Internet” or wallow in the “paid Internet?” Compare this to giving every Indian 50MB of free data, spent however they choose, which upholds net neutrality. Getting more information to more people is a laudable goal, and free is certainly nice, but it has to be executed in a way that is fair to all.

Like voting, the Internet and the information it gives access to are extremely powerful tools. With the power to deliver this tool comes the responsibility that it is delivered fairly. Spectrum is both a limited resource and a public good licensed to telecommunications companies as a raw material to turn into a product consumers can use. Distributing these licenses is the role of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and their mandate compels them to ask for public input, as they are currently doing until April 24, 2015—this Friday.

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Because there is significant investment required to refine that raw material—to build a network and extend data coverage—it is understood that these companies can charge for access to this service and meter that charge based on usage. Let’s not forget, if you use more data, you pay more. Just like if you use more electricity or more water. That is not under debate in the net neutrality discussion. The debate is about whether a telco can take away an element of consumer choice in how a consumer spends their data. When speeds are arbitrarily altered and separate categories are created, my freedom as a user is harmed.

If a telco cannot operate a business without resorting to unfair practices, then their access to the spectrum should lapse or the procedure for handing out spectrum should be revised. Yet telcos like Bharti Airtel are actually doing quite well, with their CEO saying the year ending 2014 “was both competitive and profitable” and that data is “the single biggest growth driver for the company.” Good job, keep it up! The proper telco response to Netflix taking away content revenue or Skype taking telephony revenue is to build a better product and compete, not change the rules. If the hypothetical voting companies could not build their business in a way that delivers a fair election, then that power should be given to someone else. The system must remain intact.

Like casting a vote, accessing the information that the Internet enables can be life-changing. An Indian with a connection can get a complete education—but it wouldn’t be fair for IIT’s website to be freely accessible the local university courseware requires a paid connection. An Indian merchant can sell her wares to an entire world of users far wider than the foot traffic of her storefront—she can climb the economic ladder and propel her family and national GDP forward—but her online store should not load slower than Amazon because she couldn’t pay extra. An Indian youth can watch his favorite movies and publish his independent film, but his niche Indian film site shouldn’t constantly buffer while Netflix streams well simply because one is a multi-billion dollar company and the other is a startup.

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Every Indian should care about this issue, but there are reasons why some do not. The biggest is that the Internet barely touches three out of every 20 Indians. This discussion is happening when most of those whom the outcome will eventually affect have no agency to speak. As the privileged first generation of Internet users, we should ask ourselves, “What will make me a better ancestor to those who connect in the future?”

Being a responsible Internet user demands that you take a stand. A complicated political system is a poor excuse for not voting. We want a political system where every vote is equal, where any person can run for office, and anyone can champion what they believe. We should want the same for the Internet.

India, you have impressed me so many times. Please rise to this challenge and set a standard the rest of us can admire.

Thane Richard is the Publisher and COO of Outernet, a company working to give every human on Earth access to a free digital library from space.

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Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Apr 23, 2015, 4:28 pm CDT