India stands for Net Neutrality. Shortly after the Trai press conference, an email hit my mailbox saying, “we won.” It took me a couple of moments scrolling through that email from Change.org to fathom that this had attained the status of a movement. Probably a millennial version of freedom without being violent.
Trai has taught us a valuable lesson today – principle holds merit. That the million voices of average citizens online can bring about change. That you and I can sit back and trust the powers that be, to bring about the much-needed correction in the telecom and internet industry. But most importantly, despite having many millions of dollars in marketing budgets and lobbying at their disposal, corporates can’t really subvert true principles of freedom in India!
And I moved from a sense of gloom to pride. The world’s largest democracy has reason to cheer. The nation with the most number of brains in technology is also driven by principle. We are a democracy, and we have given both sides to voice their side of the story.
All of this didn’t happen overnight. And all of this certainly can’t happen due to one particular segment of the demographic. Several people came together: from the folks at SaveTheInternet who volunteered their time to create an emailing system making it easy for novices to share their sentiment on the idea of free internet, to the selfless individuals who volunteered their time to educate the masses about how net neutrality is not just for the elite, but for a more mature internet, and that is how it is designed to be; and those who persisted and moved others to partake in the debate and voice their opinion. Oh, and you’d remember Facebook prompting you to speak up for digital equality in India.
A principle-driven fight soon had two camps. Before we realised, there were three sides to the story. One vehemently demanding that services such as Free Basics be banned. That side stands vindicated by Trai. On the other side, there are two additional opinions, Free Basics needs to be moderated, or be allowed. Surprisingly, some are vocal about that stand as well. And it pretty much leaves those who haven’t been following the debate to choose a side. To be fair, it could be a daunting task.
Through all of this, Trai has taken a stand that is an example to the world. I was immediately reminded of the global financial meltdown of 2008. Guilty as charged, I always felt our banking system was rooted in red-tapism and could probably do better. Till the fall of Lehman, and the resultant domino effect made me believe otherwise. Today, I’m deeply thankful to the protective Indian banking system.
The decision by Trai in the interest of the Indian internet consumer (and not digital corporates) has reaffirmed my faith in the telecom regulatory authorities in India as well.
The key takeaways from the Trai report are:
Do not differentiate between data/services: Essentially, an operator can no longer offer tariffs based on whether you use Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp. So say goodbye to all those supposedly enticing plans that were being advertised till today. In about six months, they’d have to cease.
Operators need to sit back and realign: Not falling in line with Trai’s directive could result in a penalty of Rs 50,000 per day up to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh. As a consumer, I feel thankful for having a regulator like Trai!
The internet in India would stay neutral: Trai has attested to the importance of internet neutrality on several occasions during the course of the debate. That essentially means a big no to differential pricing, or prioritisation of one data packet over the other purely on the basis of content.
While one packet cannot be prioritised over the other, a neutral network could still provide free content on say its own network. For instance, an operator could choose to offer a free section on its music portal if it wishes to. However, under no circumstances could it prioritise its own music service over another services such as Spotify, Hungama or Saavn to name a few.
Now that we (as Internet consumers in India) have won the first step in this larger debate, the primary question still remains unanswered. What happens to internet connectivity in India? Well, that has been addressed by Trai in the past as well. And that narrative has been on the lines that a lot more is left to be done. This will need the participation of entities including cellular operators, corporates including Facebook (who have the might and spread as influencers of opinion and technology), and average citizens like you and me to collectively participate whenever the need arises in drafting a larger, more detailed view on the future of internet in India.
To sum it up, I’d say, Facebook is welcome to grant access to the unconnected millions, but maintaining the sanctity of the internet is far more vital than that last mile of connectivity. We will hold the powers that be accountable for that lapse in connectivity.
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