What’s wrong with Airtel Zero and Internet.org


I’ve been getting a lot of folks asking me why Airtel Zero is a bad idea and why it goes against Net Neutrality.

Most folks actually believe it is an innovation by the operators and those of us in the camp asking for NetNeutrality are trying to thwart it. Well, Im hoping a slightly different perspective would help.

In order to understand netneutrality, there is something that we all must understand well – which is the notion of commons. There are certain things, assets and infrastructure that belongs to everyone. Weather is one. The way we handle minerals and natural resources is another. The air we breathe is another – these are things where the decisions and activities of one, could affect everyone and as such requires high levels of regulation in order to keep it as a common asset.

Failure to do so, usually results in folks benefitting disproportionately from the same and using that to suppress access to what was once, something that belonged to everyone.

So in an effort to make Why Airtel Zero and Internet.org violate Net Neutrality, let me explain it with a common example. Roads and toll gates. Take a well known road – if you are in delhi, take the gurgaon toll for example and assume that one day the toll gate guy realized that he wanted to go public and needed a business model that would show “growth” in revenue without substantially doing anything more on the services he was providing – having a toll, maintaining the road and collecting the cash. So he figures, there is a smart thing one can do – switch the model from being B2C (which is consumer focused and consumer focused businesses are always over a period of time lowering in cost and becoming commodities) to being B2B. How does one do that?

Well, look at the companies that are setup in Gurgaon, and go to them and offer that there is a plan that they can let their employees go to and fro via the tolls as many times as they want, as long as the companies pay the toll. And since they are businesses, they pay a slight premium. anything to enterprises are higher priced than to consumers.

Lets assume a few companies take this up. Soon enough word gets around, the people commuting and having to pass through the toll start using that as an excuse to switch companies. It starts showing up in Exit interviews that the present company doesnt offer free toll passes, whereas the new company does.

Once it gets to this, the junta follows. Every HR manager gets on the call to said toll gate company to ask how they can too enlist. Toll guy now has the upper hand, and can auction, bid or negotiate rates as they see fit. it might have cost the individuals Rs. 40 to pass through, but tollgate company can now ask for a fixed upfront fee as they see demand (and fit).

What do companies that are on the stretch who cant afford the toll do? They would either have to get along with the plan, or they have to find another destination where they can setup their offices – most probably closer to the city where there is no commute, or in a remote place but the cost of setting up and luring talent there is going to be a headache. Good luck to you on that.

This is the danger with Airtel Zero and Internet.org. Airtel Zero and Internet.org are the network equivalent of Justdial. And just as keywords are given out for bids, Airtel and Reliance will shamelessly set on auction the traffic that they get. And that messes up the environment for everyone. Costs go up, entry to barriers are built and the internet is no longer the open innovation platform that we all started off with.

This is when we come back to what we started off with. But isnt this something that is an “Innovation” by telecom operators? Well, no. because the Internet is not upto them to sell in pieces to anyone. The Internet doesnt belong to the operators, or to the government. It belongs to everyone globally and that is the reason why it is what it is. The Internet is a “common good” and that’s why this is an issue.

If you still cant wrap your head around this, imagine someone selling you access to breathing air, and the implications of it because they have every incentive to pollute to sell more, premium air.

Im reminded that this isnt a war and battle that started recently. Microsoft wanted to create an alternate gateway to the internet called Mozaic. And Mozilla was created to create an open internet free from the platform being commercialized. Mozilla was a short hand for “Mozaic Killer” and if you think I am making this up, type about:firefox in your Firefox browser. And read the manifesto.

I’m all for innovation. And operators SHOULD innovate. But slicing and dicing what belongs to everyone and serving it in a platter and calling it innovation, and overcharging, and restricting access – is not it.

Additional Notes:

A lot of folks are making the case as to why “Free” Internet will be good for Rural India.

1. Somehow, this whole empathetic view of rural India scares me. It verges in the same lines as how we see development and the debate on aid vs enabling. If rural india saw the opportunity to make a living (either by listing as a merchant or saving money by buying on for eg FK), wouldn’t they do it on their own?

2. Someone with vested interests giving away a “utility” for free, also taints it. Its like Monsanto saying they are going to give away FREE seeds to farmers. It is a small cost, but we also know how that plays into the mindset of emerging markets that they never see anything beyond that and it becomes the prerogative and entry barrier to startups and other players who can’t or don’t want to offer FREE data access.

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