Airtel is currently facing an immense backlash over its second attempt to break 'net neutrality'. Strangely enough this is not even the first time Airtel has been on the crossfire for precisely this issue. It faced a similar backlash and quickly retreated last time. But this time Airtel is back, without even the pretense of reconsidering its views.
The issue here is the concept of 'net neutrality'. This is a belief that internet providers should not be allowed to give a preference to one website over the other. Much like how a telecom company cannot be unilaterally allowed to decide which call comes to your phone and which doesn't and in what order the calls come.
The way preference is given can be in any manner of twisted and well-packaged terms. At its most basic, the preference is simply this - pay me some money, and I will make sure that customers come to your website. An internet service provider can do this in any number of ways. For example, it can make sure that YouTube loads with a high speed, but other video sites load slowly.
The internet is built on small players - usually one or two people in a room somewhere - designing something and uploading the same on the internet. From there they depend on users to find the product, like it and use it enough to make it popular and profitable.
This is precisely how many of the 'bedrock' net companies of today came about - Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Amazon, Instagram etc.
Without net neutrality, these big companies, with their billions, can easily pay massive fees to ensure that service providers do not allow customers to even find other products, and even if they find it to make the user experience so poor that they would not stay for long. Obviously two people in a room somewhere just starting off will not have the money to pay for superior treatment from the service provider.
The angle actually gets even more monopolistic once all the angles are bought in. For example, a good product can get funding from investors, to pay for better service. However, the giant internet companies are the largest investors in the market. So they could easily block any small-time competition from gaining enough customers to challenge them, and then force those entrepreneurs to essentially sell their product to the large companies for pennies.
Currently people get high prices for their products only because the large companies cannot afford to wait until the small product becomes too big to buy. Without net neutrality allowing customers to make a free choice, such a moment will never come. So there is no incentive to pay a good amount.
If net neutrality did not exist, we would, in all probability, still be using MySpace and Orkut, while searching on Yahoo and without either YouTube or Twitter.
Airtel has tried a similar idea before, and this time the plan is not very different. Under the creative name 'Airtel Zero', Airtel has invited companies to pay them money. In return they would allow customers to access the products of those companies for 'free'.
Airtel has tried to pass this off as some sort of favor the companies are doing to their customers. However this defense is paper-thin at best. What Airtel is essentially doing is giving customers an unfair incentive to go to only the websites of the companies that pays Airtel.