Home / Technology / Major blow to Understanding the Net Neutrality debate

Major blow to Understanding the Net Neutrality debate

Krishna Bahirwani explains what is happening with the TRAI consultation paper and how you can participate in it

Representational image

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is essentially that everything on the internet is treated equally and no specific websites or services are given a preference. This is really important as it helps prevent monopolies and rewards competition and creativity. If any one organisation or website were to gain special privileges such as differential pricing it makes the competitive field uneven allowing for monopolies and also leasing to things like censorship, access control, no freedom of speech and a dark future for entrepreneurs.

Why now?

TRAI had released a consultation paper on ‘Differential Pricing for Data Services’ on 09.12.2015 inviting written comments from the citizens of the country. These written comments can be submitted up to 07.01.2016.

What are the four TRAI questions? Should the TSPs be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms?

If differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of non- discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market entry and innovation are addressed?

Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models?

Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?

Useful information to make an informed decision

Information from savetheinternet.in supporting Net neutrality

Telecom Service Providers should not be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms.

Openness is the biggest strength of the internet. The ease with which people can access and share information on the web has been the force behind the internet’s growth. But price discrimination will break the internet into multiple smaller parts and will unfairly benefit some applications and services that can be accessed at a cheaper price (or for free). The practice of discriminatory pricing will not only impede the growth of internet but it also goes against the agnostic character of the telecom operators, which should be acting as pipes to carry information without discrimination. If telecom operators are allowed to have differential pricing for data usage, it will significantly limit the universe of applications and services that can be accessed by users and strip the internet off diversity, leading to a walled garden.

Contrary to what is being argued by some telecom operators and certain dominant web services such as Facebook, price discrimination is in fact disadvantageous for customers. Today, consumers are free to access the services and applications they want and are charged the same fee. Research has demonstrated that freedom of choice in information seeking is central to the value of the internet and contributes significantly to knowledge creation for citizens. For price sensitive users, differential pricing will necessarily limit this to a choice between different bouquets of content. As a consequence, the educational and other benefits of “exploring” the internet will be severely diminished. Customers will not be able to discover news services if telecom operators start deciding which services can be made available to the them at a cheaper price and the services which will have high cost of access. That’s because the natural tendency of customers is to gravitate towards cheaper services. Moreover, there is a possibility that differential pricing may result in opaque billing practices among telecom operators, which will eventually lead to unexpected charges. In my opinion, the decision of what services to access should be left to customers and not to the TSPs, which may give false choices their customers by offering certain services at subsidized rates.

India’s vibrant startup ecosystem also stands to lose if discriminatory pricing is permitted. Internet provides a level playing for all irrespective of whether it is a billion-dollar company or a fledgling startup — the best product will find customers. But by allowing differential pricing, companies that flushed with money can strike deals with internet service providers to make access to their services cheap or can block access to their competitors. This will eventually lead most small startups to shut down. As it is obvious, differential pricing runs counter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India program.

Telecom operators have seen tremendous growth in data usage on their networks in recent years. The top four telecom operators in the country together registered an annual increase of 65% and 10% for the quarter ending September 2015 in their data usage, as per a report by MediaNama. This rapid growth in usage is also resulting in higher revenues and profits for telecom operators. Therefore, differential pricing has no commercial justification as there is no evidence that the increase in data usage is hurting the financial position of the TSPs in the country. Spectrum is a public utility and telecom operators should not be allowed use it to advance their business interests.

There are several ways other than zero-rating and differential pricing to bring internet access to millions of Indians who hitherto cannot access internet due to high data costs. As I will discuss, these methods do not violate net neutrality and can be easily implemented in India.

Here it is important to note that some telecom service providers and Facebook have misled people to believe that there is no other way but to resort to differential pricing and zero rating to expand internet access.

The Indian government is trying hard to bring the internet to millions of Indians who are still offline and it is undoubtedly essential for the country’s economic development. Therefore, leaving this task to private entities will undermine the government’s efforts since private companies are using zero rating as a ruse to advance their corporate interests. The National Optic Fibre Network and deployment of USO Fund are some of the ways with which the government can broaden internet’s reach in the country without breaching net neutrality rules.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet Access of the World Wide Web Foundation has suggested that citizens should have free allowance of mobile data that will be funded through an universal service fund. In addition to that, telecom operators can also offer 2G data services with a cap of 10 to 20 MB a month. Both these measures will bring millions of Indians online who will have the opportunity to browse freely without a commercial entity deciding what they can browse.

Mozilla has also outlined methods that can provide the full internet at an affordable price without violating net neutrality. These methods are already operational in various countries around the world.

Customers who buy a $40 Klif phone will get Orange and Mozilla will get unlimited talk time, text messaging, and 500MB a month for 6 months. Orange and Mozilla are currently testing this model in several African and Middle Eastern countries.

Mozilla also tied up with Grameenphone in Bangladesh, working on a model in which users received access to 20 MB daily in exchange for watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.

Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models?

Yes, several alternatives exist other than differentiated tariff plans or zero rated services that are practical to implement and will provide access to the Internet to millions of Indians who cannot afford it due the costs of data.

At the very outset it must be remembered that improving access is public priority – and not one only to be left to some global private corporations. Private corporations cannot guarantee the neutrality and impartiality in exercising such a core government function and will only cite interests of access for furthering their own commercial profits. This will come at the cost of accountability which is at the core of any government process. Many experts have highlighted that access can be improved by the government through, “equal rated” plans that are deployed by the Government. This may be through deployment of the USO fund and creation of a national fiber optic network.

The World Wide Web foundation has suggested several alternatives for furthering access without compromising network neutrality which include a free allowance of mobile data for each citizen funded through an universal service fund. Further, TSPs can also offer 2G data services which are capped at 10/20 MB a month which would not violate any forms of network neutrality. Such measures would improve access and give millions of Indians access to the Internet, not some stripped down, wall garden in which content options are determined for them.

Further models exist and have been highlighted by entities such as the Mozilla Corporation and others. These are in the forms of, “equal rated” plans and are even being deployed in some countries. Some examples of it include:

“Could the private sector organize itself to provide a baseline “equal rating” for some amount of data necessary for modern life at discounted or no charge? Such a program would integrate the “version 1” private solution of limited access with the citizen demands for the opportunity and full inclusion of the full Open Internet. Perhaps those companies paying for the equal rating might get a “brought to you by” attribution that could bring brand value and network effects. Orange and Mozilla are experimenting with this sort of model in multiple African African and Middle Eastern markets, where users purchasing a $40 (USD) Klif phone receive unlimited talk, text, and 500 MB a month for 6 months.

Another possible way of “equal-rating” content so it is free-of-charge to the user is a model where people watch ads in order to access other sites. Mozilla has been exploring this model in a partnership with Grameenphone (owned by Telenor) in Bangladesh, where users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.”

Some TSPs and Facebook have incorrectly framed a debate around access at the cost of network neutrality to further their commercial interests. As it is evident from the above models access does not come at the price of network neutrality.

I hope the TRAI considers my answers to the present consultation in forming its opinion. These are my informed views, which have been articulated by policy experts furthering my belief in network neutrality. As stated before some TSPs and Facebook have rolled out services and extended them during the midst of the present consultations, backed by large marketing and advertising budgets. Facebook has even used its own platform to push Facebook users to market their lobbying response to the present consultation with ambiguous phrasing. Some users who are using this form have been misled into believing they are supporting net neutrality. This is different from a person independently going on a website, filling in their name and email address and sending a response. The key difference here is user choice. This is the same user choice which is absent in Free Basics or any other zero rated service.

TRAI must be advance on creating comprehensive net neutrality provisions in India, working with the Government in moving forward on the path here. In the interim, the aggressive push by several TSPs and Facebook in launching and expanding zero rated services is undermining the present consultation. I request that the TRAI look into this urgently and in the interim proposes the following measures.

Exercises its jurisdiction to issue a moratorium on violations of network neutrality till the conclusion of the consultation process; Considers the submissions made to Question Nos. 14 and 15 in the Consultation on OTT Services (April, 2015) for the Consultation on Pricing Discrimination and announces an actionable time table for the conclusion of both consultation processes.

What is Facebook’s arguement

“Free Basics gives people access to vital services like communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information – all without data charges. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators.

But Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services – even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services.

The TRAI is holding a public debate that will affect whether free basic internet services can be offered in India. Your voice is important for the 1 billion Indian people who are not yet connected and don’t have a voice on the internet.

Unless you take action now, India could lose access to free basic internet services, delaying progress towards digital equality for all Indians. Tell the TRAI you support Free Basics and digital equality in India.” states the page on Facebook via which you can email TRAI.

What is the stand Aam Admi Party has taken

The Aam Aadmi Party has released a statement/press release supporting Net Neutrality. According to the statement “The Aam Aadmi Party takes a strong stand in the interests of the Aam Aadmi in the Net Neutrality Debate and implores the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to ensure a free, open, equal and neutral internet.

Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court stuck down Section 66A of the IT Act and defended our fundamental rights, which had been curtailed by both the NDA and the UPA on pretext of securing of public order. It is now necessary for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to ensure that the internet, one of the most important public utilities, doesn’t become an expensive and unaffordable luxury for the Aam Aadmi of India.

Aam Aadmi Party believes that the internet should not be divided for Aam and Khaas users, consumers or service providers and stands by the principle of net neutrality. We hope that the citizens of India and their demand for net neutrality will be joined by all political parties, telecom service providers, startups, businesses and every corporation, consortium or company that believes that the all traffic on the internet should be treated equally and ensure that users are able to access all websites at the same speed and cost without preferential treatment of any website or service over the other. Innovation can only be encouraged and bolstered when the internet remains a level-playing field. TRAI must ensure that the best practices of net neutrality from across the world are incorporated and widened to suit India’s socioeconomic discourse.

The Aam Aadmi Party believes that the innovative youth of this country will give us the next Google, Facebook or Whatsapp. In Delhi, we are attempting to engage new businesses and startups via 30 million square feet of incubation space, simplified legal and financial processes to start a business and an educational curriculum framework that enables their cognitive development. However, if some websites or applications or services are offered free or at faster speeds, the balance tips towards established players with deeper pockets which kills the innovative young startups that will emanate from this ecosystem.

AAP hopes that TRAI will ensure that they will safeguard the core principle of freedom and equality governing the internet. In this regard, we submit our response to the TRAI Consultation Paper (based on the #SaveTheInternet campaign response and a crowd-sourced response by Reddit India), demand #NetNeutrality and support the #SaveTheInternet Campaign run by free speech liberals and internet activists and invite all citizens to do so by visiting http://www.savetheinternet.in/”