By NR Mohanty
The deadline set by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) for receiving public opinions/suggestions on its consultation paper on Net Neutrality expired on 7 January. To be fair to the Trai, it did not seek expert view on Net Neutrality as such, but ‘on a specific matter of differential policy for data services being offered by the operators’. Nevertheless this ‘specific matter’ is an integral and important part of the Net Neutrality debate.
Unfortunately, the specific consultation process initiated by the Trai was hijacked by the Free Basics debate involving Facebook. As per reports, by 7 January when the deadline expired, Trai had received almost 24 lakh responses out of which 13.5 lakh came through the template of ‘@supportfreebasics.in’ without individual emails and 5.44 lakh comments came along the same lines through ‘@facebookmail.com”.
The major chunk of the opposite view, which countered the Free Basics proposition, came through another template ‘Save the Internet’. It attracted 4.84 lakh responses.
Trai chairman’s exasperated comment was:”It is like we have asked Question X and they have given answer to Question Y”. He went on to add: “Consultations by the Trai are not opinion polls; we are not asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We are asking why you think it is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because that helps us in formulating the guidelines.”
If it were an opinion poll, clearly ‘Free Basics’ would have won hands-down. Since it is not, it has to now be seen what policy Trai formulates in the days to come on the differential tariff issue.
Trai’s dilemma is reminiscent of a similar situation that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulatory authority in the US on telecommunications matters, faced last year.
Trai, in its consultation paper, had mentioned some plans which amounted to differential tariffs provided by Telecom Service Operators (TSPs). Some of them offered zero or discounted tariff to certain content, websites, applications or platforms.
“The objective of offering such schemes is claimed to be the desire of various service/content/platform providers to enable consumers , especially the poor, to access certain content on the internet free of charge.”
The paper goes on to say that there is a flip side:
“On the one hand, it appears to make overall internet access more affordable by reducing cost of certain types of content. On the other hand, several negative effects might ensue. Differential tariffs result in classification of subscribers based on the content they want to access. This may potentially go against the principle of non-discriminatory tariff.”
The FCC in the US was caught up with a similar dilemma last year as to whether some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be allowed to offer a faster track to send content at a higher cost. In May 2014, It deliberated on two options: First, permitting fast and slow broadband lanes which amounted to compromising the principle of Net Neutrality that emphasises a 'free and open internet'. The second option was to reclassify broadband services as telecommunication services (instead of ‘information services’ as it had been designated then) and disallow differential pricing; this would preserve the principle of Net Neutrality.
There was a heated debate in the US. ISPs strongly lobbied for the first option. But over 100 internet companies — including Google, Microsoft, eBay and Facebook — signed a letter urging the FCC to go for the second option, as the first option would constitute a ‘grave threat to the internet’.
Four million Americans sent a petition to President Barack Obama urging him to preserve the principle of Net Neutrality. In November 2014, President Obama made his position crystal clear: “When I was a candidate for this office, I made clear my commitment to a free and open internet, and my commitments remain as strong as ever.”
As regards the deliberations of the FCC, the President said:” The FCC is an independent agency and ultimately the decision is theirs alone.”
Spelling out his own view, Obama said:”I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you could do or see online.”
Whether President Obama’s ringing endorsement of the Net Neutrality principle influenced FCC to reverse its position taken in April 2014 to allow some ISPs like Comcast and Verizon to offer differential tariff is not known, but in February 2015, it voted in favour of the Net Neutrality principle to keep the internet open and free.
The decisive moment has now come for the Trai. Will it go the FCC way and nix any proposal to compromise the principle of Net Neutrality?
Will Narendra Modi, the country’s supreme leader, make his position clear a la Obama, in a hard-hitting message to the Trai?
In any case, Trai is no FCC. It may be ‘indpendent’, but like most regulatory bodies in India, it is subservient to the government. India’s telecom minister has already said that the government would firm up its position after it received the recommendation of the Trai. Clearly, unlike the FCC, Trai can only recommend; the decision-making authority lies with the government.
The question is: Will the Indian government decide to go the US way and preserve the principle of Net Neutrality?
PS — An intetesting anomaly: Facebook was on the side of Net Neutrality activists in the US; it is in the firing line of Net Neutrality activists in India.
To read why Free Basics isn’t all it’s cracked out to be, check out FreeBasics: Nothing Free or Basic in this bargain of Privacy and to read why Free Basics isn’t the demon it’s made out to be, check out Free Basics: Regulatory principles versus Ideology