For a free internet

In the age of the internet, the idea of access being a right rather than a privilege has been a relatively new one. It is only in the last decade or so that the idea of the internet being a neutral resource that is available to all has caught on. An important discussion in this regards is that of net neutrality, hot topic a few years ago which the pandemic has some part in reviving once again. Very simply put, the basic idea of net neutrality is to stop internet service providers from being able to manipulate network traffic for discriminatory purposes. In our free-market capitalist societies, many would and have argued that the internet must also be a part of the free market with any government oversight or regulation being seen to have a suppressive effect on the internet service providers. Naturally, said ISPs have fought the rollout of net neutrality laws across the world tooth and nail. Most ISPs maintain that net neutrality laws will, in effect, reduce their incentive to build out the internet and also add significant operating costs that will be passed down to the customer. In 2015, Obama made efforts to operationalise net neutrality in America with relevant measures to address the many apprehensions of ISP companies. But, as is the case with many things in the US, net neutrality became a target of partisan politics in the US which only served to draw the benefits and losses of net neutrality along political lines.

Thus, when Donald Trump made Ajit Pai the head of the Federal Communications Commission, few were surprised when one of the first things he did was target Obama-era internet neutrality legislation. Pai effectively made undermined all the things the legislation required to function on a Federal level before repealing the legislation altogether. It must be noted that there were outliers like California that drafted its own net neutrality laws and kept them operational, a decision that led to the state being a target of multiple ongoing lawsuits.

But all this may be set to change. 2020 forced remarkable changes throughout the world. As the pandemic forced us inward, digital access became more central to almost every functional aspect of our life. In recent years, governments worldwide have taken an increasingly more stern stance with governing the digital realm as the risks of leaving the whole thing to private self-regulation have become increasingly apparent. In the US as well, the fight to regulate big tech is actually one of the few unifying factors that both sides can increasingly agree on, if for different reasons. Ongoing investigations into Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc., signal that Congress is no longer content to allow the internet to be as much of a free-market as it previously was. In this regard, the US is in line with similar actions worldwide. Now with a new administration only days away, there is hope in policy circles and internet activist groups that legislation on big tech and the internet can finally move through the previously airtight Republican-controlled Senate. Net neutrality is just one of the many tech legislations that Democrats are urging Biden to consider on an immediate basis with other significant decisions to be made on digital surveillance, facial recognition, political advertising and the much-discussed Section 230 that has kept social media companies safe from being held liable for content that is posted on their platform. With Pai gone, the FCC has a real opportunity to become a force for corrective change on the conversation of the internet and the still gaping digital divide that continues.

In conclusion, it is easy to see how laws like net neutrality are absolutely vital in the modern day when monopolistic tie-ups between big tech on the internet are the norm rather than the odd exception. Even India has rallied behind digital neutrality and a much broader regulation of the tech companies in recent years. Just last year, TRAI recommended that a multi-stakeholder agency be set up to assist the Telecom Department in maintaining net neutrality.

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