Net neutrality has now the regulator’s stamp of approval, ending the hope of selective free-ship of data offered by web giants to beat peers and contemporaries. So the battle might have been won by advocates of neutrality but the war over this might well move to the court given the giants pitch for free streaming of data, writes Vivek Srivastava
The Net Neutrality debate has finally come to an end with Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruling against differential pricing for Internet services and in favour of Net Neutrality.
TRAI in its statement said "No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation."
Discriminatory pricing means charging of different tariffs by a service provider for data services based on the content accessed, transmitted or received by the consumer.
“Anything on the Internet cannot be differently priced, this order would disallow any project which works on the principle of differential pricing,” said TRAI chairman RS Sharma.
TRAI has also said that a service provider may offer data services at reduced tariff, when differential data pricing might become unavoidable, especially at times of grave public emergency, provided such tariff shall be reported to the regulator within seven working days from the date of implementation of the reduced tariff.
TRAI’s new regulations came into effect immediately, and no new launches of prohibited packs, plans or vouchers shall be permitted. Violators will have to pay a fine of Rs 50,000 per day, capped at a maximum of Rs 50 lakhs.
The regulator said it will keep a close watch on the implementation of the mandate by the service providers and may undertake a review after two years or at an earlier date as it may deem fit. TRAI has given service providers six months to comply with the new rules.
“No plan, pack or voucher already subscribed by a pre-paid or post-paid consumer providing differential data tariff based on content, shall be in operation beyond a period of six months from the date of these regulations coming into effect,” it said.
The telecom regulator also rejected the argument that differential pricing will enable TSPs to bring innovative packages to suit requirements of users.
“Given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience,” said TRAI.
The regulator quoted ISP Licence Agreement which reads, “The subscriber shall have unrestricted access to all the content available on Internet except for such content which is restricted by the Licensor/designated authority under law. Price-based differentiation would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering a consumer’s online behaviour.”
TRAI’s decision has been welcomed by Net Activists. "The SaveTheInternet.in Coalition welcomes the TRAI's regulation dated 8 February 2016 which is in favour of Net Neutrality, by putting an end to differential pricing services which would have allowed telecom operators to break the Internet and become gatekeepers and toll-collectors," said the savetheinternet.in coalition, which has been fighting for net neutrality in India for past few months.
Facebook’s free basics
TRAI’s decision is a major setback to Facebook, which had been promoting its Free Basics service aggressively in the country. The company was offering free access to a limited number of websites. The net activists said that this posed some services at a disadvantage.They argued that all the online services should be treated equally.
The net activists also alleged that Free Basics curbed one's freedom to access the internet of their choice.
Facebook founder and Chief Mark Zuckerberg however, expressed his displeasure with TRAI’s decision in his Facebook post.
"Today India's telecom regulator decided to restrict programmes that provide free access to data. This restricts one of Internet.org's initiatives, Free Basics, as well as programmes by other organisations that provide free access to data. While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet," said Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg in his post said that connecting India is an important goal for them and since more than billion people in India don’t have access to internet, they won’t give up.
"We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that's why we're so committed to connecting them," he said.
He also said that Internet.org has already improved many people's lives around the world.
"That's why we launched Internet.org with so many different initiatives - including extending networks through solar-powered planes, satellites and lasers, providing free data access through Free Basics, reducing data use through apps, and empowering local entrepreneurs through Express Wi-Fi," Zuckerberg said.
The Facebook chief had left no stone unturned to push Free Basics in India. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended a town hall meeting with Zuckerberg in America. Later, the Facebook chief had held a town hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.
TRAI’s decision has also been a huge setback for telecom operators. Telecom service providers, offer internet pack options with subsidised or free plans for certain apps, now they will be forced to discontinue these apps.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has come down heavily on the TRAI’s decision to support Net Neutrality.
"The telecom industry is disappointed with TRAI’s decision to rule out differential pricing. COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India. By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation that we had submitted as a part of the industry’s response to its consulting paper, including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services among other things,” said COAI in a statement.
Director General COAI, Rajan Mathews believes that this will have an impact on Modi government’s much publicised ‘Digital India’ initiative. "In our opinion, TRAI’s regulation on prohibiting differential pricing constitutes a welfare-reducing measure of high concern by blocking a possible avenue for our less-advantaged citizens to move to increased economic growth and prosperity by harnessing the power of the Internet," said Mathews.
Research Director of Gartner, a research and advisory firm providing information technology related insight is of the opinion that telecom service providers have the ability to create different kind of Internet access package. “Such practices have already started elsewhere with products such as bandwidth on demand, bandwidth calendaring etc. to create premium products. Obviously, it will require changes in network and operations but that’s where the telecom roadmap goes,” said Amresh Nandan, Research Direct, Gartner.
Net Neutrality versus Free Basics
The discussion on Net Neutrality began in March last year, when TRAI came out with a consultation paper on Net Neutrality.
As scholar Tim Wu says Net Neutrality is about treating all websites as equal.
Wu came up with the term Net Neutrality in 2003, when he published his paper, ‘Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination’.
He argues, "Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application.”
Internet activists argue that by not counting data when a consumer visits a particular website, internet service providers put other players at a disadvantage and thus a level playing field is not created.
Last year Flipkart had signed the Airtel Zero services with Airtel, where the E-Commerce company would pay for the data accessed by its users. This was severely criticised by netizens as smaller start-ups would not be able to pay telecom giants. Under pressure from netizens Flipkart was forced to cancel its agreement.
While this happened in April last year, Facebook aggressively began pushing the Free Basics by December 2015. The company changed the name from Internet.org to Free basics and even came out with huge advertisements advocating digital equality and why this will help connecting the people from rural India.
Facebook has launched Free Basics in 15 countries and in India they partnered with Reliance Communication.
Under the agreement 38 websites and services were to be offered free of cost to its subscribers. This meant that while users will get access to some websites for free, they will have to continue to pay to access any other website apart from the pre-selected ones.
Also, under the Free Basics, users would have been unable to access websites that have not been approved by the Facebook. The social media giant, however, says that any website can apply to be a part of their Free Basics. But this would have defeated the very purpose of net neutrality, as it puts Facebook as a gatekeeper, who would have decided which website to approve and which to reject.
While TRAI’s decision has been a major victory for net activists, one can now expect Facebook or telecom companies to challenge TRAI’s ruling in court or before the Telecom Tribunal.