By explicitly barring differential pricing or “zero rating” of data services on the basis of content, route or application, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has settled the net neutrality debate in favour of the principle of equality, spurning the blandishments of expediency.
- Globally, this is being seen as the most important victory for the people in the tech space in the last 20 years.
- With this, India has joined a select few countries that have protected net neutrality and barred zero-rating services.
Significance of this decision:
This decision has no doubt set the tone for regulators across the globe, especially those of countries that have socio-economic features akin to India’s. More important, it would ensure that generations of Indians are not forced to be satisfied with services that pretend to be the Internet itself, robbing them of the real benefits of the medium.
In the last year or so, there have been more than a few attempts by the big players to offer Internet services that intrinsically seemed to violate the net neutrality principle.
- The public debate on net neutrality began in 2014 when India’s top telecom carrier Bharti Airtel decided to charge users extra for the use of applications with which they can make free calls over the Internet.
- But the most prominent and persistent among the companies has to be Facebook, which spent a lot of time in pitching its Free Basics initiative as an altruistic effort that would help millions of India’s Internet have-nots.
- Facebook’s global rebranding of its internet.org initiative as a platform open for all but adhering to Facebook’s standards, which offered “free and basic services”, was arguably the consequence of the debate over net neutrality in the country.
What was the issue now? What the TRAI ruled?
Facebook, through its initiative, had argued that it would be providing at least some access to millions of new users for free, who otherwise cannot afford it.
- TRAI did not accept this principle. It noted that it is not against the provision of limited free data that allows a user to explore the Internet. But, it finds this route palatable because the choice is with the user.
- The regulator’s problem with a price-based differentiation has more to do with the fact that in a market such as India it would distort consumer choice and have consequences that wouldn’t be understood easily.
- The ruling also suggests that while TRAI recognises the need for India to bridge the digital divide, it realises that compromising the basic ideals of the Internet is not the way to do it.
How price-based differentiation would have affected?
The most important characteristic of the Internet is whether it is the richest corporation in the world or an individual writing a blog, both are treated identically on the Internet.
- But, initiatives like free basics violate this principle. Such initiatives keep very few websites open for their customers.
- Then, an individual blogger or small start-ups had to negotiate with the Internet service providers (ISPs) to reach the telco subscribers.
- Telcos would then be the gatekeepers of the Internet. Only the biggest corporations could then survive on the Net.
- If we accept that telcos can act as gatekeepers, we would then lose what has given the Internet its unique power, the ability for us not only to be consumers but also creators of content.
- Hence, such differential treatment would have favoured big business with deep pockets, at the expense of small players and start-ups, a segment whose promotion the government has prioritised.
Why it is necessary to protect the internet?
Today, we have nearly a billion websites on the Internet and 3.5 billion users. This means that nearly one out of three users is both a content provider as well as content consumer. What the Internet monopolies want is that we should be passive consumers of their content, or at best generate captive content only for their platforms. This is why they have joined hands with telcos to offer various forms of zero-rating services. If this principle was accepted, then consumers would have had very limited space in the world of internet. The internet would have been one sided with consumers at the receiving end.
While posing as a policy that would narrow the digital divide by offering pared-down internet services to those who can afford none, zero-rated products are actually a form of predatory pricing, and India’s regulator has followed its dharma by banning them from Indian cyberspace. It has rightly valued public opinion over the pet projects of government and big business. While Digital India would certainly empower people over the long term, support for start-ups in a broader landscape of technological creativity would create jobs and capabilities immediately. Government should now support this sunrise sector not with the taxpayer’s money, which it has rashly ventured, but by creating an environment for incubating start-ups.