The beginning of Net Neutrality in India

On February 8, the day the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced a ruling against price differentials on the Net, Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web tweeted, “Well done India! Passes strong net neutrality rules, stands up for open web.”

Mr Lee’s tweet was duly shared and cheered widely by both his followers and Netarati across the country. The widespread hailing of his tweet revealed the fervor with which internet evangelists over the last few months had built the debate on price differentials on issues related to upholding the freedom of the Internet and a fight to bring down the monopoly of companies like Facebook, Reliance and Airtel.

The debate on net neutrality in India began in March last year when the telecom regulator published a ‘Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for OTT services’. This was as a result of requests from telecom companies for regulation of Over the Top (OTT) services. TRAI called for comments on the issue and within a month received nearly a million responses in support of net neutrality. Simultaneously, Airtel (India’s largest telecom company) launched a new marketing platform ‘Airtel Zero’. This platform enabled customers to access applications of participating application developers at zero data charges. The platform and its partners faced a huge backlash from the free Internet supporters, leading them to eventually phase out the program. This led to a chain reaction with many companies like NDTV and Cleartrip also backing out from Internet.org on violation of the principles of net neutrality.

Following the launch of Facebook’s Free Basics campaign in November offering pared-down web services and free access to the site on mobile phones, TRAI again floated a new paper in December questioning ‘Differential Data Pricing for Data Services’ and requested Reliance Communications (network partner for Free Basics) to stay the launch of Free Basics. The paper highlighted concerns over zero-rating platforms being offered by Telecom Service Providers (TSP) in particular. Facebook in December launched a massive advertising campaign, both through the print media and on its site in support of Free Basics. As a result of Facebook’s campaign, most of the comments received by TRAI were around Free Basics rather than differential pricing. Completely irked, TRAI reprimanded Facebook for not gathering feedback on the issue in a transparent manner. The gathering of data from Facebook users through a forced click on the site rather than a proper process of educating the consumers, gave TRAI and Net evangelists ammunition to advocate the networking site’s stance as arrogant and monopolistic.

While there were other players involved on the issue, over the last few months, due to Facebook’s advertising blitz for Free Basics, the debate got polarized between the networking site’s push for Free Basics vs Internet freedom. Facebook argued that Free Basics would enable India’s huge population to easily access free Internet and bridge the digital divide in the country. TRAI however rejected that argument. It contended that “allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting telecom service providers (TSPs) shape the users internet experience” and this can “prove to be risky in the medium to long term as the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings”. The Regulator further questioned on how the same users who could not afford data “will be in a position to migrate to the open internet if they do not have the resources to do so in the first place”.

The TRAI order of February 8 ends the debate on the issue by prohibiting all such data services, which provided access to some websites for free. The focal point of the order is this: TSPs or service providers cannot charge differently for data services based on content. Nor can they enter into any arrangement or contract for allowing such discriminatory tariffs for data. The order effectively bans zero-rating platforms like Facebook’s Free Basics or Airtel’s Zero or any special data packs for a particular app or website. While Facebook has been in focus over differential pricing even though the reach of Free Basics in India is insignificant at the moment, what will have more impact for telcos and consumers is the part that says it needs to examine claims that volume-based discounts on popular applications through content-specific data packs could enhance user choice through the freedom to choose suitable data service. TRAI says Internet access is not a ‘search good’ but an ‘experience good’ that will be understood only after being used. So data packs that offer unlimited access to a certain type of app or service, like Whatsapp or Facebook, for a small fee will also become illegal.

Currently India does not have a law on Net neutrality. Until the Parliament passes one, the latest order is the closest India has to a pro-Neutrality stand.

Postscript

Though the TRAI ruling has put a spanner for Facebook’s plans for Free Basics in India, the debate and the fervor of Internet evangelists on social media refuses to subside. As of yesterday Marc Andreessen who is on the Board of Facebook and a renowned Silicon Valley evangelist tweeted, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” Continuing the tradition he deleted or shall we say withdrew the tweet by saying “I hereby withdraw from all future discussions of Indian economics or politics. J Carry on.” Needless to say that got further retweeted and became the object of a few more thousand laughs.

Reacting to the TRAI ruling and reiterating his commitment to India Mark Zuckerberg reiterated, “While we’re disappointed with today’s decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet.” Facebook and other telcos now have the option to appeal the TRAI ruling to the Delhi High Court. However as of now none of the players have formally given a statement on the next steps and are likely to wait for the jubilation to subside before initiating any further steps.