Sunday, April 19, 2015

Net Neutrality: Acharya’s awkward U-turn

IIFL | Mumbai | April 20, 2015 08:59 IST
Here’s a short story seeking to illustrate the crux of the Net Neutrality debate that has exposed the condescending intentions of a few celebrated stakeholders of the internet. Our attempt to raise public awareness is pertinent although the analogy is far from perfect.
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Acharya Palti Kumar Thelewala is a learned Ayurved practitioner from Indapur with a great knowledge of herbs and wild medicinal plants. He began his commercial practice on an uneven stone platform under a huge Jamun tree. Life was a struggle initially but the response from the people of the village was encouraging. Soon he developed a loyal clientele and grew from strength to strength to eventually move into a spacious tent set up in a vast open space that was earmarked by the local Panchayat as a public utility space. Although the original plan was to build a children’s playground, Acharya’s arrival enthused the authorities to lend the land for his noble cause for a one-time fee and nominal annual maintenance charges.

To reach this location in the normal circumstances, people would have had to traverse a marshy wasteland and hence it would have proved inconvenient especially for patients and their elderly relatives. Sensing a business opportunity, a city-based construction cum security service company called Care Well, after due approval from the local Panchayat, built a sturdy foot-over bridge to bypass the swampy pathway. This dramatically reduced the commute time for the Indapur folks who happily paid an entry fee to Care Well, duly collected at the gate of the location which was christened Acharya Dham in due course by regular visitors. The entry fee collectively contributed to a decent pile, given the traffic that grew by leaps and bounds. Care Well soon launched premium pricing plans. The zamindars of the village paid a hefty fee over and above the normal price tag to travel in special palanquins while on the footbridge, reserved for their exclusive use. For the next rung of the privileged class, there was a common palanquin which charged an additional amount, way lower than what the Zamindars paid but extra all the same.

People were very happy with Acharya’s fast-track treatment which invariably followed an accurate diagnosis. His consultancy charges were pretty reasonable and he earned good money from the sale of herb-based tablets and syrups that he meticulously sourced from natives of tribal pockets spread across the region. Lured by Acharya’s success, many more practitioners soon set up their shops in Acharya Dham including some aspiring Adivasi Sadhus selling Churans and Chawayn Prash. Acharya Dham was soon rechristened Aarogya Dham.

Acharya was happy with his roaring practice, but the thought of the burgeoning competition did make him uncomfortable at times. Some of the other practitioners were slowly but steadily growing in reputation too. And his paid informers had also briefed him of some American physician, fondly nicknamed ‘Amazing Zen’ for his miraculous healing powers, who planned to open his clinic in Aarogya Dham shortly. This was indeed unnerving.

Enthused by the success of Acharya Palti Kumar as also his growing competition, Care Well owners thought of a brainwave. Why be content with the transactional entry fee income alone? Premium plans are no longer the fun they seemed a while ago. Why not think of a disruptive way of earning exponential revenues? Maybe shift our attention from Acharya’s customers to Acharya himself as also to his growing fears of losing his customer base…What followed was a marathon meeting of the Care Well management to devise a fool-proof plan.

The next day, a senior Care Well representative met up with Acharya Palti and presented an irresistible proposition – that if Acharya agreed to pay the entry fee to them directly on behalf of his customers, he would be assured of their undivided allegiance. Soon all of them will flock to Acharya’s den, thanks to the exempt fee. In other words, they would turn their backs on other practitioners. “We’ll also begin some construction work on the way to their clinics; this will add to the discomfort of those few who don’t enroll for the ‘free entry’ offer", the Care Well guy remarked with a vicious smile. Acharya seemed thoroughly convinced and profusely nodded in agreement. Although he was slightly worried about the possibility of Care Well striking similar deals with other practitioners in due course, he felt he had everything to gain from the arrangement. After all, he was the No. 1 doctor of Aarogya Dham with a first-mover advantage.

Given the consumer obsession with the word ‘free’, Care Well folks were more than sure about the spectacular success of their splendid plan. And even the local Panchayat seemed sympathetic to their cause, going by the notice they put up on the Panchayat office wall inviting public opinion on the new scheme, subtly downplaying the issue making it appear like an ingenious innovation in public interest without explicitly saying so.

But as soon as Acharya announced his tie-up with Care Well, there was a huge uproar from his loyal customers, something he had never anticipated. Clearly upset with the unexpected tirade, he vociferously tried to sell his logic in a last-ditch attempt: “This arrangement is not just innovative; it’s in your interest since it means free access to my clinic. What are you complaining about?” he thundered.

But all his theatrical desperation came to naught as several of his regular patients had somehow managed to read between the lines. They condemned his ‘changed ways’ on his face. “Why are you supporting these Care Well guys? They are already making merry with nauseatingly different flavors of the entry fee. Why are you trying to finish off the other doctors? Have you forgotten your Jamun tree days of struggle and how you rose to the present position, thanks only to our faith in your ability? Some of the new hakims like Swami Mantranand and Maharshi Jai Bhang also wish to tread the same path. How can you think of upsetting their plans given that they are competent physicians too? When and why did you turn so devious?” Can’t we see that you will slowly raise the prices of your medicines once we become your captive customers? The barrage of questions continued for long.

In the faltering moments of solitude later that evening, Acharya turned from pensive to panicky and finally mustered the courage to ask himself, “Why am I damaging my spotless reputation for these Care Well guys? What am I without my patients?”

The very next day, Acharya declared his withdrawal from the Care Well plan in a public address at the community hall and promised to protect the larger interests of Aarogya Dham. But deep within, he was consumed by another resolution: To be raucously dismissive about the Care Well proposition such that no competitor of Aarogya Dham – whether the underprivileged Adivasi vendors or the affluent American physician – would dare to pair with the Care Well guys.

All the same, he knows very well that his embarrassing U-turn, unfortunately true to his name, has diluted the unflinching faith that the people of Indapur had unconditionally placed in him. A wiser man from the shattering experience, he has vowed not to take them for granted ever again.

As for the Care Well guys, the public uproar has left them well and truly shaken too but, for now, they have decided to stretch their self-defeating argument to the extent possible. They were last seen distributing pamphlets on the streets (free for a change) explaining the many features of what they term would be a ‘win-win’ situation, a magnanimous gift by a pro-poor company for the common people of Indapur, half aware of the fact that most of the leaflets have joined the dustbin pile, some duly torn apart before the unceremonious dump.

Epilogue: What Care Well tried to scheme with Acharya’s help is what our Internet service providers (ISPs) plan to execute in conjunction with a few e-commerce providers, though not exactly in copybook fashion. The Panchayat represents the regulatory authority which has, so far, not taken a firm stand to protect netizen interests.

Net Neutrality, to a large extent, is a utopian concept given the fact that the heavyweights of the global online world have always been blessed with unbelievable access to our sensitive information, thanks to high-powered dedicated servers that a few high and mighty ISPs run on their behalf in discreet ways, infallible beyond our wildest imagination. Having said that, as vulnerable end-users of the veritable internet, let’s do what we can to disallow obligatory gatekeepers from becoming its overbearing Gang lords. Let’s not be lured by the word ‘Free’ which eventually carries an indiscernible ‘Fee’ – in the form of a closed internet of constricted choices where scheming providers would be officially empowered to decide what credulous consumers should buy and from whom…