Net Neutrality in India

Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Net neutrality and Internet.org.

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.

Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is based on the principle that, Internet service providers and government should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003, as an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier.

India, so far, has no laws governing net neutrality, which would promise all the internet users to be treated equally on the internet, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. There have already been a few violations of net neutrality in India by some service providers.

The debate on network neutrality in India started after Airtel, a mobile telephony service provider in India, announced in December 2014 to charge additional rates for making voice calls (VoIP) from its network using apps like WhatsApp, Skype, etc.

The Internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity.

This is why Internet.org, was created. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative bringing together technology leaders, non-profits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have Internet access. It aims to provide free access to 38 websites through an app. Only Bing was made available as the search engine. Sunil Mittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel, criticised the concept and said, “If you are going to make the data free, then let’s do completely philanthropic projects. Government must make spectrum free, there should be free network, but it is not happening.”

net neutrality

Facebook aimed to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic Internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. Internet.org lowers the cost of accessing the Internet and raises the awareness of the Internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities.

In March 2015, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a formal consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services, seeking comments from the public. The consultation paper was criticised for being one sided and having confusing statements. It received condemnation from various politicians and Indian internet users. Over 600,000 emails had been sent to TRAI demanding net neutrality.

Campaigners felt that such practices go against the free spirit of the internet and are rallying together even as India’s telecom regulator solicited public opinion on whether telecom operators should be allowed to charge differential rates.

Later, TRAI released a consultation paper on over-the-top services (OTT) and net neutrality for public feedback.

Airtel announced the “Airtel Zero” scheme. Under the scheme, app firms sign a contract and Airtel provides the apps for free to its customers. The reports of Flipkart, joining the “Airtel Zero” scheme drew negative response. People began to give the one-star rating to its app on Google Play. Following the protests Flipkart decided to pull out of Airtel Zero. The e-commerce firm confirmed the news in an official statement, saying, “We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero”.

A Member of the Parliament from Odisha, Tathagata Satpathy, wrote an open letter to TRAI in support of net neutrality. The Communication and Information Technology Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said that a committee will be formed to study the net neutrality issue. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a Member of the Parliament, had also supported net neutrality. The Competition Commission of India (CCI) chairman, Ashok Chawla, said that they were examining whether these practices were unfair. The Department of Telecommunication also said that they were investigating the matter.

Last week, YouTube (channel) videos producer All India Bakchod uploaded a video titled “Save The Internet” which urged people to email TRAI demanding net neutrality. The video was re-shared on Twitter by numerous netizens and various Indian actors.

Sharanya Bharathwaj

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