The Telecom Commission (TC), the highest decision-making body in the telecom ministry approved net neutrality rules that prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating between their web traffic.
The decision ensures that internet for Indians will continue to remain non-discriminatory and unrestricted. The TC has accepted Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) recommendations, which means that ISPs cannot block or throttle any web traffic or offer fast lanes for content providers who pay for the privilege.
The development means that service providers can’t enter into agreements such as Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ or Airtel Zero which proposed to offer only a set of services or websites for free. To use other services, users would have had to pay additional charges. The two services were later banned by TRAI. It’s a huge win for those who favor free and fair internet access in the country. Net neutrality allows companies to compete on a level playing field; for example, Netflix can’t have a mobile carrier favor its video streams and offer them at faster speeds than rival services for a fee. Similarly, carriers and ISPs are barred from charging customers more for access to popular services, like social networks or streaming music apps. It also prevents programs like Facebook’s Free Basics, which granted free access to mobile sites on the zero-rated platform that were allowed in by the company. While it sounds like a good idea for those who can’t afford data plans, it allows Facebook to control what sort of content and services people can access, and to shape their idea of what the internet has to offer.
The Telecom Commission noted that certain kinds of traffic, like communications for autonomous vehicles, and tele-medicine or remote-diagnostic services, could be prioritized for higher data transfer speeds. It also said that it’ll keep an eye on carriers’ internet traffic management methods to ensure that they play fair. India’s move to ensure net neutrality nationwide is good for consumers, and good for business. Other countries – including the US – would do well to follow its lead.
“The inter-ministerial telecom commission has given a go-ahead to net neutrality in the country. This should come into force almost immediately,” said telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan. However, emerging and critical services like remote surgery and autonomous cars that may require high-speed internet lanes have been kept out of the ambit of net neutrality rules. The Department of Telecom has to define the technologies that will be allowed the exception where telcos will be allowed to use traffic management practices to maintain the quality of service, Sundararajan said. TRAI submitted its recommendations backing net neutrality, the principle of an open internet, to the commission in November. The hotly-debated topic, which has gained prominence since 2015, had activists saying the internet should not be regulated based on the content and everybody should get equal rights. However, telecom operators say that as the traffic is going through their infrastructure, for which they have spent crores of rupees, they need to get some control to manage the traffic. India’s stand on net neutrality also came at a time when the US had repealed its free internet rules and chose to allow internet providers to charge more for certain content or giving preferential treatment to certain websites through commercial agreements.
The commission also approved the new telecom policy – National Digital Communications Policy 2018 – for seeking approval of the Union Cabinet, Sundararajan said. The draft of the policy, brought out in May, proposed to address the problems of the sector and enhance ease of doing business by reviewing licence fees, spectrum usage charges and universal service obligation fund levy – all of which add to the cost of telecom services. The policy approval comes amid a debilitating financial crisis in the telecom sector, largely triggered by price wars since Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio’s entry. The latest entrant’s free voice calls and dirt-cheap data offers have forced incumbent players to offer low tariffs, which have hit their bottom line.
European Union and India approved net neutrality
In June 2018, representatives of Europe’s BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) and India’s TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) sign a joint statement to promote an open internet. This short document describes a set of rules to guarantee net neutrality. Those are some basic rules, such as equal treatment of internet traffic, a case-by-case assessment of zero-rating practices and more.
Both the European Union and India have implemented regulation to ensure net neutrality already. But they now want to go further and work together on the same set of rules. Net neutrality is always evolving and rules need to be updated regularly. This collaboration should contribute to a unification of net neutrality.
Even more important than the statement itself, the timing of this announcement is interesting. The FCC officially repealed net neutrality in the U.S. While other regulators can’t do anything about what’s happening in the U.S., they can make sure net neutrality remains intact in their own country. There’s a risk that the FCC decision triggers a domino effect. Telecom companies in other countries could lobby regulators to end net neutrality (the U.S. has done it, so why not us?).
As ARCEP President Sébastien Soriano told a few months ago, it’s time to show that there’s another way. And the best way to do it is by forming a group of countries and regulators who share the same principles. With India and the European Union, a good chunk of the world population is now clearly defending net neutrality. Other countries could now join this alliance and prove that net neutrality is important for innovation, competition and end customers.
This framework that was published last year is the culmination of a year-long campaign for net neutrality in India. TRAI’s recommendations also pitched for free speech of citizens by ensuring diversity and plurality of opinions, views and ideas. With open internet here to stay in India, looks like there’s more opportunity for small scale businesses to grow without worrying much about their budget and expenditure as the new policy will help create parity among business organisations. India will also witness streamline consumer behaviour as users wouldn’t have to pay extra for more speed and other attractions.
Lauding net neutrality Hina Mittal, Co-founder & CEO of ProfiliAd said, “The new Telecom policy is certainly a thumbs-up strategy for India. More so, start-up companies will get equal visibility for there shall be no discrimination. It is certainly a positive impact on the digital infrastructure as the industry is a thriving worth $ 8 billion. Most of our audience is going online these days; hence parity will impact business in our county a lot.”
Commenting on Telecom Commission’s big move, CEO of Social Kinnect Rohan Mehta said, “I am quite pleased with the new policy as the customer won’t be manipulated to make choices based on the service provider’s preference. We look forward to a healthy competition in the market as it gives equal chance to smaller businesses that may not have as deep a pocket compared to the larger business firms. Strengthening the digital infrastructure would facilitate a wave of growth towards districts and tier 3 towns which would further fuel business growth and provide them the impetus they would need to flourish.”
Meanwhile, the Telecom Secretary also announced few measures against violation of the new open Internet rules. It would involve a two-stage process of review and appeal. The new rules include stringent monetary penalties starting at Rs 50,000 per violation per day and capped at Rs 50 lakh depending on the gravity of the violation. Not only this, but also a multi-stakeholder not-for-profit body will be formed to monitor and enforce the rules. We are told, TRAI will be issuing a detailed guideline regarding the same.
Parveez Nasayam, CEO & Managing Director, Xenium Digital Pvt. Ltd backed India’s nod for net neutrality and said, “Quite happy with the news as small vendors will benefit more from their business. Budgets wouldn’t require being big for startups when compared to the larger firms as they can afford to spend lavishly on ads and marketing.” On the other hand Sahil Chopra, Founder & CEO icubesWire said, “The new policy is good but how fair it is for those who have internet to be deciding for people who don’t have one. I would say it doesn’t make a grand difference in here. What is more crucial is with more digitization data security becomes imperative. One needs to take up strong measures against data breach to avoid any violations.” Surprisingly, while on one side America’s net neutrality rules died last month, India is taking up the cause seriously and gearing up for a free and fair internet service to all its users.
Won Indian internet activists
Telecommunication (DoT) approved rules of net neutrality, which, in simple terms, ensures availability of free and equally accessible internet to all. In 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) published a paper on net neutrality, with possible internet regulations. It was a 118-page-long document and it came with heavy words and concepts that many did not understand. Meanwhile, telecom giant Airtel had released a plan which would charge extra for internet calls and a platform called Airtel Zero, which would allow free usage of select apps. This is popularly known as zero-rating. Airtel was forced to cancel both these plans.
Platforms like Facebook’s FreeBasics was also banned in India in 2016, which provided free access to certain internet services in developing countries like India. This is when the activists of the internet awoke and rallied users into supporting the net neutrality concept, by explaining the discrimination it would bring in the internet space through the example of these companies. After decoding TRAI’s paper, experts and analysts also believed that the paper published by TRAI looked sympathetic to the telecom operators. It seemed like it could come up with a favourable outcome for the telecom companies and not the internet users. The paper said “strict network neutrality and no regulation – are inherently flawed. Banning all discrimination is over-inclusive”.
Almost immediately, the internet exploded with information about what net neutrality is and why it is important to every user. Since the discussion had already started in the US, it was possible that people would dismiss the issue deeming it foreign. Information was crucial and luckily, there were many to disseminate it. Websites like savetheinternet.in and netneutrality.in were set up by activists of free internet who rolled out petitions for the public to sign. In less than a week, 8 lakh emails were sent to India’s telecom regulator, demanding a free and fair internet.
A video was uploaded by a leading comedy group, explaining what net neutrality is and why everyone should care about the subject. It got over 2.5 million hits in less than a week. Major companies showed their support for a free and fair internet, saying discrimination could crumple local Indian companies and start-ups just entering the market. Lakhs of petitions through social media, videos and news led to this landmark decision by the telecom department, and India’s rules could also be one of the world’s strongest and most progressive.
Still fighting in U.S.
The Obama administration had strongly advocated net neutrality rules in the US but in 2015, US telecom regulator Ajit Pai announced rolling back of those rules, which treated internet service providers like public utilities.
This is when the discussion started worldwide about what a free internet is, including in India. Despite enough public discourse and uproar over the last three years, the US repealed net neutrality rules in June. Activists are working tirelessly in the US to make their internet free and fair as well.