Trai says corporate war between telco, media house sparked net neutrality debate

All India's media institutions have been widely reporting on the debate, so far and have all posited themselves on the side of net neutrality.

With the debate over net neutrality increasingly gaining more prominence in the wake of Airtel's Zero platform, the telecom regulatory authority (TRAI) has also weighed in, calling for more democratic debate on the issue.

The outrage that was sparked by Airtel's zero platform proposal has seen an unprecedented coming together of India's netizens and has also dragged initiatives like Facebook's Internet.Org into the harsh spotlight.

In exclusive comments to the Indian Express, TRAI chief Telecom regulator Rahul Khullar had also said that the furore had been sparked off by a ' corporate war' between a media house and a telecom operator, which is " confounding already difficult matters".

He did not mention which media house he was talking about. All India's media institutions have been widely reporting on the debate, so far and have all posited themselves on the side of net neutrality.

In terms of actual action taken though, while companies like NDTV have already pulled out of Internet.Org, Times of India said it supports net neutrality but will withdraw from internet.org only if its direct competitors like India Today, NDTV, IBNLive, NewsHunt, and BBC pull out. They are reportedly also appealing to Jagran, Aaj Tak, Amar Ujala, Maalai Malar, Reuters, and Cricinfo to withdraw from zero rate schemes.

Meanwhile public activism on the issue is only growing stronger.

The website savetheinternet.in which seeks to help users reply to TRAI tweeted out a short while ago, that as many as 600990 mails had been sent to the telecom regulator so far, exhorting people to 'keep those emails coming'. TRAI has requested stakeholders to comment on its paper by April 24 and offer counter comments by May 8. It is also likely to hold an open house discussion on the issue soon.

“This is completely unprecedented. We thought we’ll get about 15,000 e-mails in 10 days,” Kiran Jonnalagadda, the founder of HasGeek and one of the people behind the campaign told The Economic Times when the website first began to gather steam.

Meanwhile the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) for its part, alleged that TRAI was furthering the agenda of telecom operators on this issue.

It looks like Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its consultation paper, has copy-pasted from submissions of telcos. India has a robust and at times, overbearing IT Act,” IAMAI President Subho Ray was quoted as saying by PTI.

Khullar for his part has insisted that, "there are many others in between, that one should not ignore despite the passionate nature of the debate between the two extremes. We need a democratic debate on the issue, not shrill voices".

Significantly, TRAI has also released a discussion paper which posits that mobile applications providing free internet-based calls and messaging services can be a threat to individual and national security.

“Most applications can trace the user’s location for underlying processes (such as GPS apps finding the nearest restaurants). This information may be used to commit a crime, or the location itself may be the target of a crime. Such threats can impact the nation’s security and financial health,” TRAI paper says.

However the Economic Times quoted a 'senior' TRAI official as saying, "From the looks of it, Airtel Zero and many other plans including Facebook's Internet.org tie-up with Reliance Communications and the free WhatsApp, Facebook offers by other telcos seem to violate net neutrality".

Buckling under growing public outrage, e-commerce giant Flipkart decided to ‘walk away’ from Airtel Zero, while travel portal Cleartrip pulled out of ‘internet.org’ platform of Facebook, where RCOM is a partner.

Both Airtel and Facebook have staunchly denied that their initiatives violate net neutrality.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement that “For people who are not on the Internet though, having some connectivity and some ability to share is always much better than having no ability to connect and share at all. That’s why programmes like internet.org are important and can co-exist with Net neutrality regulations,” he said.

Airtel has also said that the outrage is based on 'misinformation': “In the end, the debate over the past few days has brought out one thing clearly – a large number of people are still not clear on what Net Neutrality is all about. This gives an opportunity to the so called experts to make various as well as baseless arguments", it said.

The Telco has not mentioned any corporate war with a 'media house' for being behind the campaign. So we may never know exactly what Khullar  meant when he spoke to the Indian Express. However as the deadline for talks grows nearer and both sides step up their campaign, we may all just be the recipients of more such claims, allegations and counter allegations.

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