Net neutrality

India took a firm stand in support of complete net neutrality as the country's telecom regulator barred discriminatory pricing of data services, effectively prohibiting controversial zero-rated products such as Facebook's Free Basics and Airtel Zero with a maximum Rs.50 lakh penalty for violators.` “Keeping in view India's large number of Net users and content producers, the authority has taken a view that prohibition of discriminatory tariff for data services is necessary to ensure service providers continue to fulfill obligations in keeping Internet open and non-discriminatory,“ Trai said in a statement. The ruling took effect immediately.
Trai cited licence conditions and said service providers can't enter into any pact that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered on the basis of content. This disallows subsidised data packages that offer access to only select services such as WhatsApp or Twitter by various telcos to attract subscribers.
However, the regulation will not apply to tariffs for data services over closed communication networks, unless the plans are offered to “evade“ the rule prohibiting discriminatory access. When asked to clarify if the exemption applies to operators such as Reliance Jio Infocomm, which is generating its own content, Trai Chairman RS Sharma said: “Anything on the internet cannot be differentially priced.“
Trai will be the final authority that will decide whether its instructions are being violated. Tariffs though “may be reduced for accessing emergency services or at times of public emergency“, it said. In such cases, tariffs should be reported to Trai in seven working days. The regulator is yet to determine the emergency services that this will cover.
Trai will review the rule two years after it comes into effect. The order, in the form of a regulation that does not need to be cleared by the government, gave service providers six months to comply with the new rules. It can, however, be challenged in court. It's not clear if telcos will do so.
India joins countries like Chile, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Japan in banning zero-rated products. Others such as the US, France, the European Union and UK have chosen soft laws or a case-by-case approach.

Facebook, which had spent heavily on an advertising to promote Free Basics, was disappointed by the decision. “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,“ a spokesperson said. “While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the un connected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.“

The regulator had been critical of the Facebook effort. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had taken a lead role in the campaign through blogs, opinion pieces and outreach programmes with the student community in India.

The US company had said Free Basics would allow millions of Indians, especially in rural areas, to access the Web for free but critics said it would only allow them to reach select sites and therefore was against the concept of net neutrality . Trai had previously directed Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Communications, which is Facebook's only distributor of Free Basics in India, not to offer the product on a commercial basis. RCom declined to comment.
Airtel, India's No. 1 telco, had sought to launch Airtel Zero in April 2015, but had put it on the backburner after facing a severe backlash on social and other media from the supporters of net neutrality.

Rajan Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), said price differentiation would have taken India closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India.
Senior BJP leader and Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad welcomed the Trai decision calling it “a clear expression of popular will“. “The decision is fully in line with the BJP-led NDA government's vision of open and fair Internet and support to net neutrality, which it has reiterated time and again, on the floor of the Parliament and outside,“ he said. The minister further added that the Congress, which tried to create an atmosphere of distrust and fear, stands exposed after the decision. The Congress, on its part, welcomed Trai's move, saying it vindicated the stand taken by its vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Former minister of state for IT and communications Milind Deora tweeted, “Amid the government's deafening silence, glad #TRAI has endorsed the global#NetNeutrality yardstick of a democratic & open internet.“

On December 9, Facebook started a mass campaign on its platform asking users to support Free Basics and urged them to email Trai declaring their support for “digital equality“.

No comments: