Net Neutral India

India has taken a firm and decisive step towards ensuring ‘Net Neutrality’ when Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced its decision this week on deferential pricing by telecom service providers. With this, India has become the first nation in the world to take a decisive stand in favour of Net Neutrality. India’s position on the issue is likely to influence other countries in taking a similar stand, as the debate has been raging as vociferously in other countries as it has in India.

So what is the debate about?

In India, it all started with Airtel, India’s leading telecom service provider, announcing its plan to charge separately for internet-based calls. This led to nationwide protests and started a debate on telecom service provider’s authority to take a unilateral decision to charge, and thereby divide, the user community based on preferential pricing. Airtel was forced to take back its order.

The debate took a serious turn after Airtel launched its Airtel Zero Plan that offered a free internet platform. Soon, Facebook joined the fray by launching Internet.Org, which later renamed – Free Basics. The objective of Free Basics, as stated by Facebook, was to improve internet services in underdeveloped and developing countries.

Towards this objective, Facebook tied up with Reliance to provide free internet access users in India and offer access to select sites that would be available free of charge to users, especially the poorer segments.

The question asked by those opposing the move – is internet access really free? And why should one organization, in this case Facebook, decide which sites people should have free access to and which ones must be paid for? In other words, deny access to other sites, since the poor would not be able to afford them anyways. FCC in 2015, set up rules on net neutrality to ensure all have free choice to access content over the internet. The critics claim that Free Basics runs counter to this principle.

The argument holds merit since the very principle of internet is based on free and universally accessible medium for information, knowledge and entertainment. The fact that an organization like Facebook will decide which website or apps will be free and which ones must be paid for, goes against the very concept of freedom of choice and universal access to all. That has been the Indian government’s position as reflected in TRAI’S recent decision.

To allow or not to allow

India is Facebook’s largest and fastest growing market after the United States, and with 354 million internet users – as on September 2015, India presents a significant opportunity for Facebook to acquire a very large number of users. The fear is that, this will also enable the company over the long term, to influence user choice on which sites or apps to access, thereby restricting the freedom to choose by the internet user.

Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook, has been vociferous in defence of Free Basics saying that easy and free access to internet users in poorer countries was critical to enabling the poor to utilize the opportunities that the internet offered. He has further clarified that Free Basics would be free of commercials and that there was no revenue to be earned for Facebook. This though is still being debated. Meanwhile, Facebook has gone on a multi-media splurge in India defending Free Basics and even got over 3 million of its users to speak up in favour of Free Basics.

Earlier, TRAI had instructed Reliance to put on hold its Free Basics plan until the government would come to some conclusion. The government had invited opinions and suggestions from all stakeholders on the issue, and after much deliberation, TRAI has taken a position against Free Basics and in favour of maintaining net neutrality.

The internet user in India be impacted had TRAI voted in favour of Free Basics and other similar plans?

Would have created a monopoly for bigger players

Free Basics would have favoured larger internet service and content providers who could afford to muscle out smaller players by sheer volume and incentivized content. Ultimately, the internet user would have been restricted to content from larger players and denied quality and perhaps, relevant content from smaller ones.

Unsuspecting users would have been ensnared by service providers

Service providers would have the advantage of locking in users by offering free access to premium content. This indirectly would have had a discriminatory effect on other users.

Your choice would have been influenced

Creating a level field over content access and availability is crucial for users to exercise their freedom in choosing what content to access and what not, without being influenced by service providers. Under Free Basics, the user would at some point directly or indirectly be influenced by the service provider and that would have led to a skewed content development and availability to internet users.

India has a very wide cultural and social diaspora, which needs options to choose what’s best for them as per local needs and conditions. Because of Free Basics, they would have been the ones worst affected.

Creativity would have been stifled

With larger players dominating the market, all content creation would have been dominated by them, leaving out innovative content from smaller players. In the long run, the internet would have moved towards a narrower content base that would directly or indirectly favour the larger players, when the internet should actually be moving towards a wider base with an equal opportunity to all for content creation.

The future of internet opportunity

India is on the cusp of breaking out from a follower’s path and transitioning into a developer’s path, one which is led by innovation and creativity. The fact that apps and start-ups are being initiated in non-traditional locations, away from the metros, is a sign that India is ready to break-out of its past and embrace the internet for all the opportunity it offers.

In this context, TRAI must be congratulated for its commitment to the cause of ‘Net Neutrality’ and the nation must now use this opportunity to change lives for the better.