- The Telecom Commission (TC) — which is the highest decision-making body in the Department of Telecom, has approved the principle of net neutrality as recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
What is Net neutrality?
- There is no explicit definition of term net neutrality. As per TRAI, while considering net neutrality, a principles-based approach is more practical. Hence principles of non-discrimination and neutral access is appropriate in the context of India.
- Thus net neutrality creates rules of the road for a free and open Internet. It requires that barriers should not be created by telecom and internet service providers (ISPs) for user choice by limiting their power to discriminate between content providers and different classes of content.
- This means that telecom and Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, site, platform, or application.
- They cannot engage in practices such as blocking, slowing down or granting preferential speeds to any content.
Benefits of Net Neutrality (NN):
- The recommendations supporting net neutrality are important in the India context as the Internet will play an extremely important role for delivery of various services, including those offered by the government as well as for financial inclusion.
- The strongest argument in favour of NN is that it promotes innovation, which won’t be possible with a censored internet, as many successful startups are the result of unfettered access to the internet.
- Moreover, with India in the league of emerging nations ready to occupy and influence the world stage, any censorship of the right to access the internet will be seen as a retrograde step.
Argument against NN
- Efficiency of limited bandwidth: Some of services like voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) are hardly used by India’s poor and in fact end up slowing down access to the basic services that less economically-privileged citizens need more. Hence different rate should be charged for these services to maximize the efficiency of limited bandwidth.
- Bleeding telecom sector: India has benefited greatly from one of the world’s most vibrant and competitive telecom sectors but due to brutal competition, sector forces down tariffs well below advanced-economy levels. Hence telecom companies have a compelling argument for charging differently for different bandwidth use.
- Poor penetration and infrastructural gaps: Given the low penetration of broadband and computers, the only way to extend the reach of Internet widely is through telecom companies. India still needs to build much more telecom and Internet infrastructure. Private companies can only make those investments if they earn a decent profit.
- Free access to limited internet for the poor (not allowed under net neutrality) may increase participation: In such a situation, packages such as Facebook’s Free Basics (where FB will bear data charges of users to access FB and some websites) to users will enable first-time, albeit limited, access for many users to the internet. Even if Free Basics violates the purist standards of NN, it may not bring grave harm upon and distort the very foundation of the open internet.
- TRAI recommendation was based on the broad principle that all traffic on the Internet shall be treated equally so no discrimination in any form i.e. speed, price etc.
- TRAI has suggested to the government a multi-stakeholder body should be entrusted with the job of implementation, monitoring and regulation of net neutrality.
- Like BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) India for television audience, Telecom can have a body that includes telecom industry, advertisers, broadcasters, academia and NGOs etc., that can be.
- However, there are two caveats — one is exception and the other is exclusion.
- Exclusion is of things which typically don’t ride on the public Internet; for example time critical applications where quality of service is of paramount importance.
- Exceptions mean certain situational things; for example, disaster relief work for which traffic might need to be prioritised. There might also be traffic jams on the highway and traffic management practices will need to be employed.
- While applying option of exclusion and exception, the proportionate, transient and the disclosure part, are very important. They bring about a lot of transparency.
- They should be proportionate in the sense that you cannot completely block a road. You should apply methods proportional to the gravity of the situation.
- These practices must be transient and should be in place only till the time situation persists.
- Lastly, there should be full disclosure as to what you did and at what point in time.
- The government has approved the principle of net neutrality as recommended by TRAI.
- Critical services:
- However certain emerging and critical services will be kept out of the purview of these norms.
- A separate committee has been set up under the Department of Telecom (DoT) to examine what these critical services will be. These may include autonomous vehicles, digital healthcare services or disaster management.
USA and net neutrality (NN):
- Around 2014-15, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the US like Verizon and Comcast are alleged to have exercised monopoly power that allowed preferential access to bandwidth hogging content like Netflix (video streaming), which resulted in degrading the quality of the internet for other content.
- In response, in early 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had urged adoption of the NN principles and spread it to other parts of the world.
- The contention was that you should not have to pay any more for choosing a service or website other than the normal access charge.
- However, recently the US is withdrawing from the NN consensus. And, in the process, it will perhaps explore other ways to ensure that the internet remains an open space.
Net Neutrality and OTT Services:
- An over-the-top (OTT) application is any app or service that provides a product over the Internet and bypasses traditional distribution. For example WhatsApp messaging services vs traditional SMS, Hotstar/Netflix vs a cable company etc.
- Services that come over the top are most typically related to media and communication and are generally, if not always, lower in cost than the traditional method of delivery.
- The creation of OTT applications disrupts traditional billing models and has led to a wide-ranging conflict between companies that offer similar or overlapping services.
- While the issue OTT is connected with Net neutrality, it is not central to it.