India is closely watching the developments in the US on net neutrality ahead of finalising its own policy on the subject. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed to return the US to what it called “light-touch regulatory framework under which a free and open Internet flourished for almost 20 years”. While the proposal was made by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who argued that this was necessary as a structure, which enabled users and providers pay to connect with each other, would raise funds to build broadband infrastructure, the Commission will vote on December 14 on the issue. Critics of the Donald Trump administration, however, say that the FCC is on its way to killing net neutrality by dismantling the current regulations. Under net neutrality, a term said to have been coined by a Columbia University professor some 14 years ago, service providers will not be in a position to intentionally block, slow down, or charge money for specific websites and online content.
Although India’s telecom regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), often follows international counterparts in its recommendations, the narrative should be different on the issue at a time when the government is awaiting its recommendations before issuing the policy guidelines on net neutrality. The initial signals are encouraging as both the regulator and the government have said so far that internet service providers must treat all online data in the same manner without any discrimination. The regulator had last year given away its leanings towards net neutrality when it ruled against differential data pricing tied to content services from telcos and others, ending zero-rating platforms in the country. Zero-rating platforms (Facebook’s Free Basics is an example) provide access to some websites for free. That stand should continue, but confusion arose because of signals that Trai might want to keep certain emergency services like health and finance as priority areas for high-speed internet. As a concept, that sounds good. But it is another matter how services will be determined as emergency and whether the principle of net neutrality will hold good with even these discriminations.
Despite some merit in a free marketplace argument, Trai can’t ignore the realities of a growing economy like India and its deep digital divide. The net neutrality debate had kicked off in India more than two years ago, when Bharti Airtel proposed ‘Airtel Zero’, an open marketing platform aimed at allowing users access to many mobile applications for free. Data charges were proposed to be paid by the application providers. But it was a short-lived initiative as the service was shut down following protests.
The central point in the debate is this: No telecom operator can be a gatekeeper and control which apps to use and which ones not to. Besides, there is no reason why an operator should dictate to the customer which site to go to. Net neutrality loyalists point out that internet services should be like oxygen we breathe. Or even like electricity and water — distribution companies charge consumers based on the units they use and not on the purpose of consumption. That really is the cornerstone of net neutrality and should not be compromised upon, whatever the FCC may decide to do. After all, the core principle of net neutrality is that the internet should be a level playing field, and its networks should be agnostic to providers and users.