From the 90’s onwards, the Internet is steadily replacing all other technologies to become the most sought after medium for the global population. It has given us a platform for communication, innovation, and economic opportunity. More and more chunks of populations are being connected to it and more societies being opened to this abundance of ideas. If the initial form of Internet in the 90’s was just for communicating via e-mail and for web pages, new ideas are being introduced day-by-day and we are experiencing a myriad of applications capable of doing what we had never thought of. Realizing the potential of this medium, even the UN recently proposed that the ‘Internet access should be made a human right’.
Access for all
As the Internet use become a universal phenomenon, the question of ‘network neutrality’ and ‘open access’ gains much importance. Simply speaking, it’s a neutral architecture that’s open to every conceivable type of application that could be developed around the world, be it databases, transfer of documents, videos on YouTube, etc. Technological evangelists visualize a neutral architecture as one which is unaware of the application it is bearing and which is open to all populations, irrespective of services. The ideal one proposed is the one which focuses on end-users and whose policies are not formulated by the owners of the network. But lately, some developments have occurred which questions such a concept and which are shaped by the technology giants. We could examine some such efforts:
It is a Facebook-led initiative which has its motto as to ‘provide affordable internet, which offers selected services to two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have the internet access’. It aims to deploy various technologies like mesh networks, unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite links and optical communication to provide connectivity based on geographical position of the target audience. Even though the aim seems good, the embedded restrictions in offering services which are nicknamed ‘packages’ drew lots of flak from the supporters of open access.
2. Project ‘Loon’ from Google
The champion of search and connectivity world, Google is behind this project which aims to provide connectivity to remote and rural areas with the help of high-altitude balloons placed in stratosphere. An offshoot of this project visualizes cellular communication also through this means in future. As of now, the technology giant has not talked of any ‘restriction’ of services that it intend to offer through this way.
3. White Space initiative
White Space Coalition is a set of technology companies including Microsoft, Dell, Google, HP, Intel, Samsung, EarthLink etc which is working to deliver internet through analog TV signals for remote areas.For example, Microsoft has come up with its own concept of using the White space which is the unused TV spectrum (now owned by Doordarshan) to offer costless connectivity to selected areas of rural India. It has opened up the project in collusion with the ‘Digital India’ initiative charted out by the present Government of India. The project is funded by the tech giant and the necessary infrastructure at the operational level is also provided by it.
They are Internet access initiatives by US companies which offers low-cost access to web through satellite hotspots which receive signals from small satellite constellation positioned on outer space. It has been currently launched in US, Europe, North Africa and Middle East.
Along with these, mobile giants like Telenor, Orange etc ,space exploration companies like SpaceX and tech giants like Amazon are starting to take part in such initiative aimed at bridging the digital divide.
Initiatives at Government level
If we look at the initiatives in public space, Many governments and organisations in the world are developing broadband policies to address the digital infrastructure divide, by stimulating investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure in rural areas; for example, through the provision of public–private partnerships and structural funds.Some projects as part of ‘Digital India’ proposed by the Government of India is one such initiative.The government is working with the Department of Telecommunications so as to ensure low-cost access in all parts of India. Bharat Net, a high speed digital highway to connect all 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats of country. This would be the world's largest rural broadband connectivity project using optical fibre. BSNL has undertaken large scale deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the country. It has been actively working to take the benefits of optical technology through NKN(National Knowledge Network)to all academic institutions including Universities and Colleges throughout India.
Looking to the outer space
If we review all the projects by private internet companies outlined above, we could see that the essential approach is to migrate from terrestrial mode of service to service from outer space. It is the result of some changes that have come from the late 90’s – satellite technology has advanced and the cost of deployment has been down, new types of drones, unmanned aerial vehicles have been developed, abundant use of spectrum has been achieved – all these contribute to the focus on outer space and atmosphere.
Censorship – a thorn in the path
Censorship is the most important impediment in the path to an open internet platform. It is the control of information and ideas circulated within a society. In old days, it was enforced by examination of plays, books, television/radio, news reports etc. But in the age of internet, under the guise of censorship, governments or societies enforce this in the name of protecting family, state or religious beliefs. The argument which takes the first place is religious sentiments; the close second goes to national security and government secrecy, parental controls take the next position and so on. To control the damage done to their reputation, the governments have climbed down from their stance and paved way for milder controls. Most governments resort now to adopting PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selections)as a means of enforcing censorship.. The ‘Great Firewall’ implemented in mainland China is an example of tight restrictions in the censorship of content .It is a government-sponsored framework for censorship of Internet.
The Wikileaks and Snowden Saga
In the opening years of the new Century, US and UK governments had enforced laws like ‘Patriot Act’ and ‘Freedom Act’ or ‘Communications Data Bill’ and snooping mechanisms like PRISM. Global groups like Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF), private groups like Anonymous, etc have carried the campaigns for a neutral and open Internet to the next level by exposing the loopholes in these mechanisms for mass surveillance which leads to attack on the privacy of common man. But the crusades of ‘Wikileaks’ owned by Julian Assange and exposes by Edward Snowden, a former FBI operative have successfully exposed the behind-the-scene stories of surveillance programs by governments that have reached alarming levels.
The Age of Social Engineering
Nowadays, the stress of censor mechanisms has focused on Social media platforms as they have been recognized as the ‘happening areas’ of information dissemination. Using latest data mining technologies and expert surveillance techniques, the censors, agencies, governments etc are collecting the online history of individuals so as to serve as indicators for collective social trands. These data could even help them in finding how individuals or even populations could act to change agents. It is no secret that such data can be used for social engineering by media, corporations and governments as they please.
We now know that no nation can exist as an island in the connected world.The initiatives outlined above by big and small players is to ensure free and fair connectivity. When a country goes “online,” the Internet has the capacity to accelerate its economy and prompt almost immediate growth. From the experiences in developed countries, it is now evident that the exposure to such a world without boundaries in communication is not without its flaws. While the reason behind the endeavors for open and free internet vary and all of them cannot be surely said as having a positive note for the general public, in the terms of connectivity, it is the humanity which stand to benefit ultimately.