Let’s deconstruct the #netneutrality debate by understanding ‘data discrimination’

Initial Literature Review on Net Neutrality and Data Discrimination:


What is net neutrality? What is the current debate about?

What is the current state of Internet access around the world? Is data discrimination creating a new type of global digital divide? / Is the definition of Internet access changing around the world in absence of net neutrality? What steps can designers and technology developers take to adapt their services to non-neutral networks? How does data discrimination affect user behavior? How would end-users in such networks consume web based services?


Jinesh Nagin Parekh,

MSc in Engineering (Human Computer Interaction)



Net Neutrality, Data discrimination, Data Filtering, Digital Divide, ICTD, Global Internet access

Introduction to Net Neutrality and Data Discrimination

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs)[1] and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication (Wu, 2003) (Jan Krämer, 2013) (Whitt, 2010).

It simple words, net neutrality is an idea where all forms of Internet traffic or data is treated equally. This means every piece of information on the Internet should have equal opportunity for the end-user to access and there should be no ‘data discrimination’ or preference to certain types of Internet traffic over others (Frieden, 2008).

ISPs act as a gateway between the end-user and the Internet. This pipeline allows end-users to access everything on the Internet – emails, files, websites and various digital content. When an ISP acts like a filter instead of pipeline by giving preferential access to some types of traffic over others; it can amount to data discrimination (Honan, 2008).

Two common techniques with which ISPs discriminate (or filter) data are:

Discrimination by protocol: Favoring or blocking information based on aspects of the communications protocol that the computers are using to communicate.

Discrimination by IP address blocking: Deep packet inspection (DPI) programs were originally used by ISPs to block/filter malware. Over time DPI helped ISPs make real-time discrimination between different kinds of Internet traffic data (M. Chris Riley, 2009).


In a non-neutral network, the abovementioned data discrimination techniques can be used by ISPs and/or governments to:

  1. a) censor information or wall-garden the network[2],
  2. b) provide free Internet access to some websites and charge for other websites[3],
  3. c) provide faster access to some types traffic and slower access to other data[4],
  4. d) charge differentially based on service protocol[5] or
  5. e) checking user’s private web browsing history to understand user behavior and place targeted advertisements[6].

This is the reason some researchers believe that it’s important to create technological frameworks and legal policies that protect net neutrality and prevent ISPs from harmful traffic discrimination (Economides, 2009) (Wu, 2003).



The debate for and against net neutrality

Ever since the term ‘net neutrality’ was coined in 2003 by Columbia media law Professor Tim Wu, there has been an intense debate around this topic.

The debates for and against ‘net neutrality’ have been from a technical, economical, social and political perspective and with both sides of the argument having some logical (and some unviable) recommendations.

From a technical standpoint, it can be argued that the Internet was never neutral to begin with and shouldn’t be engineered towards it (Crowcroft, 2007). This claim is further supported by some economists as they claim that the rise of the Internet took place because the Government wasn’t involved and it should continue this way (Robert Hahn, 2006).

On the counter side of this argument, some Governments have passed policies that regulate  (broadband) Internet access for net neutrality like most public service utilities such as electricity, gas and water supply (Rebecca Ruiz, 2015).

Some researchers argue that net neutrality mandates would likely reduce overall investment incentive for ISPs; but the absence of such mandates could harm many small content providers and kill competition, as some web services would be more accessible than others (Njoroge, Ozdaglar, Stier-Moses, & Weintraub, 2014).

For instance; if data usage for and Whatsapp is free in some poor or developing countries if such companies directly pay for such data usage to ISPs – can it be deduced that people in those countries will unlikely opt for any other Internet messenger service?

Some researchers have shifted the argument from an economical to a social perspective as they claim that proponents of net neutrality more frequently invoke innovation while opponents of net neutrality don’t (Cheng, Fleischmann, Wang, Ishita, & Oard, 2012).

In 2015 a social movement led by many content providers in India called ‘Save The Internet’ gained momentum; as over 1 million people wrote to the Telephone Regulatory Authority of India to have net neutrality mandates that prevent data discrimination and zero pricing by ISPs (DNA Networks, 2015) (Save the Internet, 2015) (Collier, 2015).

In recent years, a rising number of Internet users from developing countries under a non-neutral network has received a lot of social and political attention from the media through such Internet activists.



(Absence of) Net Neutrality in developing countries

As of 2014, 65% of the world is still offline. 4.4 billion people in the world still lack Internet access in 2017. About 4 billion of these come from developing countries (Sprague, 2014).

We are now witnessing a dramatic shift in information and Internet access.

Twenty years ago, for every 4 Internet users in the developed world, there was 1 user from the developing world. Today, for every 1 user from the developed world there are 2 from the developing world. (ITU, 2015).

Rise in low cost Internet device enabled mobile phones, open source software, localization of content/services and digital literacy programs will further help developing countries bridge the digital divide and help people participate in the information era in the coming years (Barry Wellman, 2004) (Sen, Collins, & Ableson, 2009).

Internet access is cheap and easy to access in developed countries; the opposite is true in the case of developing economies. Even though developing countries are gaining number of Internet users, reliable Internet connections at decent speeds still remains largely unaffordable to the general public (Kibati & Petrazzini, 1999) (Baliamoune-Lutza, 2003).

Citing Internet access ‘affordability’ as a barrier to the digital divide; governments from many developing countries have encouraged a lot corporate support get more users online.

It is common practice for many such corporates/ISPs in developing countries violate principles of net neutrality and engage in data discrimination (Newman, 2014). One particular issue with data discrimination that has sparked up a lot of debate in developing counties – selective content access or an Internet service pricing model known as ‘zero pricing’ or free Internet to access few websites (Crawford, 2015).

A model in which large content providing companies (like Facebook) directly pay to mobile network operators[7] for users who access While this increases user base for the content provider – the network operator and the web company; it leads to monopolies and kills competitive products on the web (Sharma, 2014).

As developing countries set out to bridge their digital divide and increase their number of users; it’s important to note that majority of the world’s Internet users in the future will be from non-neutral Internet networks.


Non-Neutral Internet Access: Creating a new type of divide?

The issue is no longer about access – it is about type of access.

Research on digital divide in developing countries by most researchers is quantitative as it predicts the number of Internet users, type of platform used to get online, access medium (broadband, mobile data) and so on.

Existing research on net neutrality and data discrimination is of mixed views and highly opinionated. It also provides recommendations on how to or how to not create policies that mandate net neutrality.

Irrespective of the lens with which we look at the subject of net neutrality and whether we are for or against it; we can be almost certain that absence (or presence) of net neutrality or a closed Internet would have an effect on the the way users access content and services on the Internet.

Consider some of the largest Internet based companies of our times – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Skype, TransferWise, Spotify and so on – most of the web services they offer have been designed by existing online users in mainly developed countries. Their initial users, designers and technologists were primarily users of a (relatively) open Internet and catered to such an audience.

Although developing countries are gaining number of Internet users; Internet is (and perhaps will be) access is very differently by end-users as net neutrality status differs.

As MIT technology reports; the most accessed websites in Kenya are Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Kenyan Google. Such is the case with many other developing countries. But if Google and Facebook sites/services are the only ones people can access for free, they begin to seem like the whole Internet, not just a part of it. It could be possible that to many Kenyans facebook and google is the entire Internet. A wall-gardened Internet can be used for communication, entertainment and basic information search – but they cannot be used to update one’s resume or apply for a job. (MIT Technology Review, 2014) (Hertz, 2014) (Newman, 2014).

Could it also be possible to deduce that (non-neutral) Internet usage under such a scenario would be for more for entertainment rather than information?

If there is only a limited number of things you can do with the non-neutral Internet and since the highest number of Internet users will be from developing countries – could it mean that the entire perception of the Internet is changing (or has changed) around the world?

As data discrimination and neutrality violation in Internet access remains a key issue in most developing countries and for majority of the Internet users in the world – there is very little research to understand how this type of selective Internet access will affect user behavior.

Further studies need to be conducted to understand how users would behave under non-neutral networks. This would help researchers, designers, developers and technologists create better Internet services and applications under such networks.


Barry Wellman, W. C. (2004). The Global Digital Divide Within and Between Countries. IT and Society, 1(7), 18-25.

Honan, M. (2008, 02 12). Inside Net Neutrality: Is your ISP filtering content? Retrieved 12 13, 2015, from Macworld:

Wu, T. (2003). Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination. Journal on Telecommunications & High Technology Law, 2, 141.

Jan Krämer, L. W. (2013, October). Net neutrality: A progress report. Telecommunications Policy, 37(9), 687-814.

Crowcroft, J. (2007). The Technical Side of the Debate ~ A White Paper . International Journal of Communication, 1, 567-579.

Rebecca Ruiz, S. L. (2015, Feb 26). F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from Nytimes Technology:

Whitt, R. (2010, Aug 12). Facts about our network neutrality policy proposal. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from Google Public Policy:

Frieden, R. (2008, Jan). A primer on network neutrality. Intereconomics, 43(1), 4-15.

Microsoft. (2014, Jan 29). What is an Internet Service Provider (ISP)? Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from Microsoft Windows:

ITU. (2002, Jul 04). What is IMT-2000. Retrieved Dec 12, 2015, from

Ergen, M. (2009). Introduction to Mobile Broadband. In M. Ergen, Mobile Broadband (pp. 3-18). Springer US.

  1. Chris Riley, B. S. (2009, Mar 1). Deep Packet Inspection: The end of the Internet as we know it? Retrieved Dec 15, 2015, from FreePress:

MacKinnon, R. (2008). Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China. Public Choice, 134(1-2), 31-46. (2015, Oct). Where we’ve launched. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from

Cao, P., Chan, W., Medved, J., Suwala, G., Bates, T., & Zhang, A. (2006). Improving Traffic Locality in BitTorrent via Biased Neighbor Selection. Distributed Computing Systems, 66.

Reisman, A. (2009, Mar 21). Is Your ISP Throttling Your Bandwidth? Retrieved Dec 15, 2015, from Net Equalizer:

Bhargava, Y. (2014, Dec 31). The Hindu. Retrieved Dec 12, 2015, from Airtel drops plans to charge extra for internet voice calls :

Andreas Kuehn, M. M. (2012, Sep 01). Profiling the Profilers: Deep Packet Inspection and Behavioral Advertising in Europe and the United States. Retrieved Dec 15, 2015, from Social Science Research Network:

Economides, N. (2009). Net Neutrality, Non-Discrimination and Digital Distribution of Content Through the Internet. Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 4, 209.

Robert Hahn, S. W. (2006, Apr). The Economics of Net Neutrality. The Economists’ Voice, 3(6).

Njoroge, P., Ozdaglar, A., Stier-Moses, N. E., & Weintraub, G. Y. (2014, Feb). Investment in Two-Sided Markets and the Net Neutrality Debate. Review of Network Economics, 12(4), 355-402.

Cheng, A.-S., Fleischmann, K. R., Wang, P., Ishita, E., & Oard, D. W. (2012, March). The role of innovation and wealth in the net neutrality debate: A content analysis of human values in congressional and FCC hearings. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(7), 1360-1373.

DNA Networks. (2015, Oct 29). “Save the Internet” activists pen an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg after Delhi townhall. Retrieved Dec 16, 2015, from DNA Analysis:

Save the Internet. (2015, Nov 01). Tell TRAI that we need net neutrality, once again. Retrieved Dec 15, 2015, from Save The Internet India:

Collier, K. (2015, Apr 20). India’s push for net neutrality nears 1 million confirmed letters to the government. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from The Dailly Dot :

Sprague, K. G. (2014). Offline and falling behind: Barriers to internet adoption. McKinsey & Company, Tech. Rep.

ITU. (2015). ICT Facts and Figures – The world in 2015. ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

Sen, R., Collins, C., & Ableson, F. (2009). Unlocking Android. Greenwich: Manning.

Kibati, M., & Petrazzini, B. (1999, Jun). “The Internet in developing countries.”. Communications of the ACM, 42(6), 31-36.

Baliamoune-Lutza, M. (2003). An analysis of the determinants and effects of ICT diffusion in developing countries. Information Technology for Development, 10(3), 51-169.

Newman, L. H. (2014, Jan 21). Net Neutrality Is Already in Trouble in the Developing World. Retrieved Dec 16, 2015, from Future Tense:

MIT Technology Review. (2014, Jan 20). Retrieved Dec 12, 2015, from

Crawford, S. (2015, Jan 7). Less than Zero. Retrieved Dec 8, 2015, from Medium:

Sharma, S. (2014, Apr 15). Blow To As Indian Internet Companies Begin To Withdraw. Retrieved Dec 13, 2015, from The Huffington Post:

Hertz, M. B. (2014, Oct 24). A New Understanding of the Digital Divide. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015, from Edutopia:



[1] An Internet Service Provider (ISP) is a company that provides you with access to the Internet via a wired or wireless connection, usually for a fee. The most common way for an ISPs to connect the end-users to Internet is by using a phone line (dial-up) or broadband connection (cable or DSL). Access to Internet can also be enabled wirelessly by mobile network operators (MNO) and Wireless-Internet Service Providers (WISP) via mobile broadband or WiFi. (Microsoft, 2014) (ITU, 2002) (Ergen, 2009).


[2] Some governments IP blocking and DPI programs to censor sensitive information. For instance; the Government of China blocks popular websites including, and (MacKinnon, 2008).

[3] In 18 African, 11 Asian and 6 Latin American developing countries, mobile network operators offer access free of cost to end users (, 2015). The rest of Internet is charged.

[4] A practice commonly known as bandwidth throttling has been used by ISPs to restrict certain protocols by slowing down peer-2-peer sharing applications like torrents (Cao, et al., 2006) (Reisman, 2009).

[5] A telecom company called Airtel wanted to charge its Indian customers extra for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services like Skype, Viber and so on (Bhargava, 2014)

[6] ISPs have been known to use DPI techniques for behavioural understanding of users for targeting online advertisements (Andreas Kuehn, 2012).

[7] As on 2015, there are over 35 developing countries in which access to is free of cost to end-users. It’s unlikely that users would opt for any other social networking – messaging service in these countries (, 2015).