Circa 2012 – Airtel’s tagline “Jo tera hai woh mera hai” successfully resonated with all the youngsters who enjoyed in sharing happiness and sorrows with their friends. This earned the brand plaudits and goodwill among the consumers.
Three years later, plaudits and goodwill are now replaced by brickbats and hostility when Airtel launched “Airtel Zero”, a campaign that has violated principles of net neutrality a founding principle of the internet.
The recent consultation paper released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on 27 March, 2015 titled “Regulatory framework for over-the-top services/ Internet services and net neutrality” has understandably whipped up emotions and concerns amongst internet users.
The basic principle of net neutrality entails that all internet websites, data and applications must be treated equally. They should be accessible at the same speed for the price you are paying to your internet service provider (ISP).
As an internet consumer, it is grossly absurd to even think about meddling with internet users’ liberty to access web content and charging users for utilizing over-the-top services like YouTube, WhatsApp and Skype on top of the fees people already pay for access to the internet.
At a time when internet penetration is low in India with just 251.59 million internet subscribers out of the total population of 1.25 billion, Internet regulation if any must be well thought out and implemented so as to keep it free and fair for future generations to come. It also goes against the very grain of digital India as envisaged by our Honourable Prime Minister whose vision is to transform India into a digitally empowered society by leveraging information technology (IT) as a growth engine of new India.
Moreover, the New Telecom Policy 2012 envisages providing affordable and reliable broadband on demand by the year 2015 and to achieve 175 million broadband connections by the year 2017 and 600 million by the year 2020.
It is upsetting to discover that several prominent Indian companies violated net neutrality norms and undermined the level playing field essential to the internet’s growth in the country.
Airtel initiated Airtel Zero platform which enables users to access apps created by companies for free which comes at a cost – companies partnering with Airtel are more likely to rake in more money through paid prioritisation. This is a classic example of anti-competitive practice. Sachin Bansal, the CEO of Flipkart was considering collaborating with Airtel for the Airtel Zero programme and blatantly defended the platform on social media. Thankfully, after facing massive uproar and backlash from net neutrality propagators, Flipkart walked away from discussions with Airtel to join Airtel Zero platform and committed to the larger cause of net neutrality in India.
In a similar vein, Aircel violated net neutrality by partnering with Wikipedia by offering free and instantaneous access to the website on Aircel mobile phones. In 2013, Reliance announced that it will offer Twitter access pack, which gave Reliance users unlimited Twitter access for free once they subscribed to the pack. Such freebies are discriminatory and raise anti-competition concerns.
The internet proved to be the most disruptive technological force in the world of business. It made possible for start-ups like Snapdeal, Flipkart, etc. to dream big and earn their spurs as leading companies in the world. Internet helped start-ups that were starved with insufficient funds or influence to make a remarkable impact in a short period of time. Thus, by ignoring net neutrality, millions of entrepreneurial aspirations will not be realised in India.
For any country to be a developed economy, innovation is one of the crucial dominating factors which will determine the trajectory of the country’s economic growth and help create vast reservoirs of knowledge. TRAI must sanctify net neutrality and by protecting net neutrality, innovation can be fostered on a large scale, helping India gain the status of knowledge superpower and leading to more incentives for further investment in communications infrastructure.
It is laudable that Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Cabinet Minister of Information and Communication Technology has supported net neutrality by stating that the government believes in using internet for citizen empowerment and the internet belongs to entire humanity and not to a select few. In addition to this, he declared that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) constituted a 6 member panel which will submit the views and recommendations on net neutrality by May 9 and a final decision will be taken accordingly. The views of the government will be independent of what the TRAI recommends.
US President Barack Obama who supported net neutrality back in 2007 said that net neutrality will promote healthy competition, foster innovation in the country which is already a hotbed of technological startup enterprises and create a level playing field that is essential to internet’s growth.
In March, 2015 the Federal Communications Commission, the US government agency for telecom regulation recently voted in favour of strong net neutrality rules to keep the internet open and free. Chile was the first country in the world to embrace net neutrality regulations in 2010 where companies like Facebook, WhatsApp cannot strike deals with telecom operators to promote their services for free. Brazil adopted net neutrality regulations in 2014 where service providers are obliged to honour data packages irrespective of content, origin, service and application. The Netherlands was the first European nation to adopt net neutrality regulations where internet service providers are not allowed to slow down access to services or apps on the internet.
Net neutrality is a key to the growth of India’s internet economy as it will ensure equality, innovation and competition. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India should protect net neutrality in India by making sure that internet service providers disclose traffic management practices and telecom operators do not discriminate between data packets of any particular content. Telecom operators deserve a rap on their knuckles for violating net neutrality and endangering internet democratisation. As a popular quip in the mobile operator’s ad mentions – No ullu banaoing!