Net neutrality, Apps licensing and the net debate catch the attention of India
Two fluttering wings created the tsunami – an innocuous looking consultation note from the TRAI and the launch of a seemingly well-intentioned service from an operator seeking to make a bundle of free Internet services available to a population segment that had thus far stayed away from joining the Internet bandwagon. And suddenly a furore has emanated on the Internet, starting with a few well- meaning netizens, spreading to the All India Bakchod aibi and getting lakhs of people in a frenzy as hashtag activism’ threatened to create a new revolution without a single angry footstep physically hitting the streets of the country.
The first public fallout of the ‘net neutrality’ indignation in the country was the announcement of Fiipkart that it would withdraw from Air- tel Zero which would have meant apps licence fees pain to the carrier by the company to enable subscribers of the service to have free access. What this revealed to the world, which had hither: not taken that much notice, was that
Facebook too had been marketing Mark Zuck- erber; s pet project – Internet.org, fairly aggressively in India. Launched in February with the support of Reliance Communications, the project offers basic Internet services to the underserve a who could not afford the cost of access earlier. Once the Apps Licensing issue surfaced and the net neutrality doubts surfaced, partners like Cleartrip and NDTV hastened to withdraw from the platform, while the Times group has been in wait and watch’ mode.
Interestingly Zuckerberg himself has jumped to the defence of the platform, suggesting that “net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles – universal connectivity and net neutrality – can and must co-exist”. The real point of course is contained later in the same note where Zuckerberg argues: “Mobile operators spend tens of billions of dollars to support all of Internet traffic. If it was all free, they’d go out of business. But, by offering some basic services, it’s still affordable and it’s valuable and free for everyone to use.” This column does not support one view or the other, because every argument in favour of free apps and against walled gardens on the Internet can be countered by the need to have basic Internet services in education, skills, healthcare, jobs and governance free to every citizen of the planet. Large scale government initiatives like the Digital
Shaksharta Abhiyan (National Digital Literacy Mission) will certainly be served better, if the hundreds of millions of digitally literate citizens have access to a nation-wide broadband network.
Social inclusion and the bridging of the digital divide are a must and comparisons between fully connected communities of the Western world and the aspirational netizens of the emerging world are naturally odious. If only the policy-makers can make it viable for the operators to open their portals to all, while ensuring that there is a level playing field for all apps developers and creators of content for the vast user community out there, all interest would be best served.
Are there precedents that can be followed as we move towards such an equitable and harmonious policy for India? In the US, the argument has raged on with the pro-neutrality faction arguing that Internet services are no different from phone services and the latter has never been allowed to slow down a connection if they did not approve or get a premium from certain categories of users. The anti-neutrality faction have argued that data doggers like Netflix and YouTube, with exabytes of software, music and videos and the creators of free phone call, have all built these services on networks that cost governments and operators billions to build and serve, so why should they not pay a premium?
Arguments for innovation and freedom of speech have been routinely heard on the web waves and even in courts such as the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled against the Federal Communications Commission 2010 net neutrality rules. The recent moves of the FCC may well provide guideposts to the powers-that-be in our country, with its positive ideas against all forms of discrimination, including blocking, throttling or paid prioritization by any broadband provider. Special disclosure norms for data limits, fees, network management practices, promotional rates and surcharges by operators may make it more complicated for users but will ensure that a visible level playing field is available to all.
We are still watching the first act in India. The battle today may be restricted to cyberspace, the outcome of this protest will have far reaching ramifications on the nature of debate and criticism of policies and practices in the years to come. And, it should be welcomed! ♦