The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) released the eagerly awaited recommendations on net neutrality on November 28, making it mandatory for telecom companies to treat the internet as a public utility.
“No one owns the Internet… so, it should be open and accessible to everyone,” stressed Trai Chairman, R S Sharma, adding that “we have 500 million net subscribers and 1.3 billion population… big things will happen on the Internet and it is important to keep it open…and not cannibalised. Networks should not prefer one content over other… should not block or offer fast lane [to some content].”
This simply means that service providers cannot indulge in gate-keeping of this information highway. The recommendations propose restrictions on service providers from entering into agreements, which lead to discriminatory treatment of content on the Internet.
“Service providers should be restricted from entering into any arrangement, agreement or contract by whatever name called… that has the effect of discriminatory treatment based on content…,” it said. “The discriminatory treatment in the context of treatment of content would include any form of discrimination, restriction or interference in the treatment of content including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content,” the Trai specified.
The Trai has also suggested a multi-stakeholder body comprising telecom and internet service providers, content providers, civil society organisations and consumer representatives for monitoring and investigating the violations. The penalty can go up to Rs 50 lakh.
This is a big win for the common person and supporters of net neutrality who have been backing the principle that the entire internet traffic should be available to everyone on equal terms without any discrimination based on business considerations of service providers.
Debate Picks Up
The debate on net neutrality gathered pace in 2015 when Facebook launched its Free Basics programme (formerly internet.org) in December 2015. The programme allowed free access to basic internet services (slower network) for those users who could not afford 4G data plans. This flew in the face of the basic principle of net neutrality.
After a prolonged debate, Trai banned Free Basics and other similar services such as Airtel Zero in February 2016. Thereafter, it came out with a consultation paper on regulatory framework. In its consultation paper on net neutrality released in January 2017, it asked stakeholders to suggest principles for ensuring non-discriminatory access to content on the internet, which would be most suited to the Indian context.
Practices such as blocking; slowing down or throttling; and preferential treatment of certain content over others, came under the scanner. The paper also turned the spotlight on network speed, which telecom operators use to push their preferences or prevent access to any website or service, which need decent net speed.
Basic Human Right
In 2007, it was reported that the US-based internet service provider (ISP) Comcast Corp was delaying upload of files on Bitorrent, a peer-to-peer service, thereby adversely affecting its download speed. This prompted the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the US regulator, to order stopping such discrimination in August 2008.
The United Nations declared the internet as a basic Human Right on June 3, 2011. It stated that “disconnecting individuals from the Internet is a violation of human rights and goes against international law.” “The unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only enables individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression,…but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole,” the UN added.
In 2015, net neutrality took centrestage when then US President Barack Obama supported it and advised the FCC to work out strong rules enabling it. The FCC ruled in favour of net neutrality the same year prohibiting any ISP from blocking, throttling or giving special treatment in terms of speed to a content provider who has paid more than others.
US Steps Back
Ironically, when India is giving a thumbs-up for net neutrality, the United States is stepping back. The FCC plans to roll back the ‘net neutrality’ that was adopted in 2015.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai has proposed reversing the Obama-era net neutrality and voting on the issue is scheduled on December 14. This is expected to pass as the Republicans have five votes against three from the Democratic Party.
Pai’s proposal would give big Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon broad powers to determine what website should reach out to subscribers faster than others.
The proposal has already come under a blistering attack of several Indian-American lawmakers. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu lawmaker, said, “Net neutrality protections ensure that the internet remains open, fair, and equal for everyone. By dismantling these protections, we turn our backs on the most fundamental rights of our students, entrepreneurs, innovators, small businesses, and working families, and all who rely on an open Internet to level the playing field of opportunity. The FCC must fulfil their responsibility to all Americans, not just big ISPs.”
Net neutrality would go a long way in ensuring a level playing field for an increasingly aspirational India, especially the startup generation. It ensures that the big players do not have any unfair advantage and block the path for the enterprising.
At the same time, Trai has also been careful not to deny opportunities for growth and healthy competition. It has proposed to exempt Content Delivery Networks that enable telcos to distribute content within their own network without going through public Internet. It has also planned to exempt specialised services like tele-surgery. The ball is in the court of the Department of Telecommunications to take a final call on the matter.