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Bringing the Next Billion Online

To realise the internet’s true potential, enabling discoverability of information through net neutrality, and safeguarding privacy of  all users is vital

Here’s a tidbit: Right now, a Masai warrior with a smartphone has better access to information than the US President did 15 years ago.

The internet will transform the lives of the world’s ‘bottom billion’. India alone will contribute over 250 million users by 2020. But who should provide internet access, and in what form, is a complex issue. Online services relating to health, education and banking are at the core of the government’s ‘Digital India’ campaign. At the same time, India presents an extraordinary market for such services – a ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’.

As companies explore new business models (zero rating, ad-supported, equal rating) through innovative mediums (drones, solar planes, balloons, satellites), the government has a vital role to play.

It must declare a clear vision for the country’s next billion internet users: What aspirations does it hold for its internet citizenry? What are its core values? When will it intervene? In short, what does the internet of the future look like?

Here, I offer two ideals, which in my opinion are essential to realise the internet’s true potential – first, enabling discoverability of information through net neutrality. Second, equal privacy for all users, irrespective of the service, platform or medium.

Curiosity Kills the User

I still remember the day I learnt how to enter a URL in my browser. When I asked my friend what I should do next, he replied “Go exploring!”.

exploring c&h

(Source: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, on December 31, 1995)

Fortunately for me, the internet has always been limitless. And besides the data charges I pay once a month, it is free. ‘Free’ as in free beer, and freedom (mostly). Now imagine instead a world where every next click might lead to a blocked website, additional charges, or a slow connection. How might this affect my thirst for, and ability to acquire new information?

To promote discoverability of information, we must declare net neutrality a key element of internet policy. We must state explicitly and unambiguously that access providers shall not discriminate on the basis of (a) service (b) price, or (c) speed. Limited exceptions can be carved out for purely technical, safety and security reasons.

For starters, differentiating between types of services will create islands of information. According to Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “lots of little webs doesn’t work” because, he explains, “you can’t follow links from one to the other”. In our quest to connect the next billion, we must ensure that we don’t end up with multiple ‘little webs’.

The freedom to jump from a Wikipedia page, to an educational video on Khan Academy, to a philosophy podcast on iTunes, to celestial images on Google Earththat is what makes the internet such an incredible place. As early beneficiaries of one of humanity’s greatest inventions, we must strive to provide the next generation of users with the same tools to nourish their curiosity and creativity – a truly open and connected web.

the_problem_with_wikipedia

(A problem you want to have | xkcd: ‘The Problem with Wikipedia” by Randall Munroe)

We need to take a step back and ask ourselves – what do we really mean by ‘digital empowerment’? Right now, video content and large images are prohibited on Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ platform. For many Free Basics users who don’t eventually move to the internet (60% of Indian users), that means an experience devoid of essential communication tools (Skype), educational resources (National Geographic), and therapeutic games (Super Better). So it is hardly surprising when empirical research show that low-income users have a ‘strong preference for unrestricted access, even when limited plans [are] more affordable’.

Differential pricing is not only problematic, but also unnecessary. Providing cheap access to the entire internet is fully compatible with net neutrality. In fact, ‘enhancing affordability’ is the government’s prerogative under the National Telecom Policy. By effectively implementing existing e-governance schemes such as ‘e-Kranti’, in combination with its rural broadband project BharatNet, the government can bring e-health, education and banking services directly to the people, without having to rely on the charity of corporations. And if businesses are not required to provide ‘basic’ services for free, what is the need for differential pricing at all?

Throttling speeds for specific services should also be prohibited. Poor response time impairs the user experience and has been shown to hurt the bottom line. In the absence of net neutrality regulation, a commercial entity in control of a non-neutral platform will have a strong incentive to steer users away from competitors’ services, and to its own, which in turn will affect the overall diversity and discoverability of services on that platform.

Taken together, net neutrality is a necessary condition to enable discoverability and diversity of information. But it is not sufficient. A recent McKinsey report identifies ‘user capability’ as an important barrier to internet adoption. To tackle this, the government should focus on digital literacy and local languages programs. In parallel, continuing innovation in natural language processing, automation and usability will surely help the next billion users uncover the internet.

No Free Lunch, No Free Data

“If you’re not paying for it, you are the product being sold”. I will never tire of this aphorism because it applies precisely, especially in India, to our fetish for anything ‘free’, coupled with general apathy about privacy – a deadly combination.

The next billion internet users will generate massive amounts of data. Some of this will be clearly private (banking and medical records), others less so (e-mails, location, search histories, browsing patterns, device info). But let’s not be mistaken: all of this data will be used, and possibly monetized, in some way or another. After all, we are Facebook’s lab rats.

Online privacy is so vital to democracy that the UNHRC just established a UN Special Rapporteur on “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age”. As new internet gatekeepers emerge, we must think hard about potential privacy harms, and act fast to counter them.

From an Indian perspective, here are some issues to think about:

There is no right to privacy. A Right to Privacy Bill has been in the works since 2011, but is still in the ‘consultation stage’. For now, users remain at the mercy of outdated regulations, frequently changing privacy policies and opaque internal protocols. Hardly comforting.

Equally worrying is that most user data generated from the ‘Digital India’ initiative will be stored abroad. In fact, the DoT Committee on Net Neutrality raised concerns about foreign service providers bypassing Indian privacy laws and leaking personal information.

It seems the government wants to be the custodian of its citizens’ data. But there is some biting irony here too. While ‘data localisation’ norms are being contemplated for ‘critical sectors’, we do not seem to have fully grasped the consequences of handing over user data, potentially relating to a billion new internet users, to foreign service providers.

More importantly, why has no attempt been made to value such data? Probably because it will be self-defeating. After all, the government’s stated position is that the poor are willing to sacrifice their privacy rights for some apparent benefits (for eg. an Aadhar card). Similar rhetoric will likely be used in the internet access debate as well.

billion - west delhi

(West Delhi, courtesy Google Images)

But that is why privacy for all users, irrespective of service, platform or medium, is an ideal. In the absence of any statutory framework for privacy, I suggest that access providers adopt the ‘National Privacy Principles’ enumerated by the Group of Experts on Privacy. This would not preclude monetisation of user data. But it will comfort users.

Ultimately however, a positive ‘right to privacy’, whether bestowed by the legislature or the Supreme Court, is the only way forward. And it needs to come soon.

Conclusion

In this essay, I offer two tests to determine whether any platform, service, model or medium poses potential harms for new internet users:

(1) Does it enable the discoverability and diversity of information by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of service, price or speed; and

(2) Does it contain adequate technical, operational and legal safeguards, as set out in the National Privacy Principles, to protect the personal information of all users?

If either answer is ‘no’, I submit that it is an undesirable way to connect the next billion users.

In due course, the government should consider publishing a comprehensive policy stating its broad position on various issues affecting internet adoption in India, including last mile access, spectrum management, regulation of internet services, net neutrality, digital literacy, privacy and cybersecurity. A big-picture, long-term, forward-thinking policy will help private industry devise sustainable business models, while ensuring basic protections for users. For the next billion individuals who are yet to experience the magic of the internet, it’s the least we can do.

About Amlan Mohanty

Amlan is a lawyer based in India. He has been writing about technology and intellectual property for the last five years.