In a landmark decision that could have a far-reaching impact, the centre approved the basic principles of net neutrality in India, adding that deviations and violations of the rules of net neutrality will be met with stiff penalties.
Net neutrality is back in the news. The Indian government has thrown its weight behind a free and open internet, stating that the internet is an open platform that must not be controlled by any entity that could compromise the availability of content to any consumer by ‘data discrimination’.
In a landmark decision that could have a far reaching impact, the centre approved the basic principles of net neutrality in India, adding that deviations and violations of the rules of net neutrality will be met with stiff penalties.
Telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan told the media that licence agreements with service providers will be immediately amended and these agreements will be subject to the principles of net neutrality. The decision also carries with it the heft of TRAI’s authority. The regulatory body had supported the basic principles of an open and free internet in its recommendations on net neutrality to the telecom department in November 2017. It had observed that Internet of Things, or IoT, as a class of services, should not be excluded from the scope of restriction on non-discriminatory treatment except for certain critical services.
One communications consulting expert said, “No country bars differential pricing in as strong a manner as India. Other countries, and especially EU, allow differential pricing in some cases.”
Here’s what net Neutrality and Internet of Things mean. Net neutrality, at its simplest, means that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet.
It is the principle that individuals should be free to access all content and applications equally, regardless of the source, without ISPs or, internet service providers - like Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone, Reliance, ACT etc - discriminating against specific online services or websites.
If net neutrality is disregarded or diluted, ISPs can control the internet usage of individuals- prevent users from visiting certain websites, provide slower speeds for streaming services or redirect users from one website to a competing website. Net neutrality rules prevent such a scenario by requiring ISPs to connect users to all lawful content on the internet equally, without giving preferential treatment to certain sites or services.
What about Internet of Things? ZDNet defines IoT like this: The Internet of Things refers to billions of physical devices around the world that are now connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data. Thanks to cheap processors and wireless networks, it's possible to turn anything, from a pill to an aeroplane, into part of the IoT. This adds a level of digital intelligence to devices that are otherwise dumb, enabling them to communicate without intervention from a human being. It merges the digital and physical worlds.
Under net neutrality, online access will remain unfettered and free of discrimination. The only exceptions made will be new services like autonomous driving, telemedicine or remote-diagnostic services, which might require dedicated connectivity and above average speeds. The government will appoint a committee to examine possible exceptions for “critical services” which will be defined keeping in mind the basic tenets of net neutrality.
Telecom secretary Sundararajan said net neutrality will be introduced through a notification from the telecom ministry, and companies will be required to adhere to these principles.
Changes to licensing norms for companies will be made to factor in these updated regulations. And in an ironic twist, big brother will be watching so that these companies do not mess with your and my freedom to read and view what we want to on the internet, provided its legal.
The internet traffic management by mobile companies will be monitored. “The telecom department will decide on traffic management rules, and will seek recommendations from sector regulator TRAI on the same,” said Sundararajan. For this purpose, the government is looking at setting up a multi-stakeholder body. The secretary added, “Apart from government officials, this will have representatives from telecom companies, ISPs, and those engaged in internet-of-things platforms.”
But what are the fears these new rules are supposed to hold at bay? Well, as the internet economy grown ever larger in size and influence across he world, there have been increasing concerns regarding the potential for discriminatory treatment of internet traffic by the organizations that can switch on or off our access to the net. There is also a very real fear that some internet giants may buy their way through to a preferential environment at the cost of other companies and startups.
One crude example is DTH services - customers pay for channels that come in packages and can be customised or upgraded using higher subscription packages. Those could be your internet usage choices.
Or take, for instance, zero-rated platforms. Zero-rated platforms are services which offer free, but limited access to the internet through a few websites or services. A while back, there was a campaign by Facebook - Free Basics - which kicked off the whole net neutrality debate in India. Free Basics and other zero-rated internet services purported to let users access certain apps and websites without eating away at their mobile data. Mark Zuckerberg defended Free basics in a column in Times Of India, “Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people.”
The main counterargument to programs like Free basics is such a practice creates an unfair marketplace. By subsidizing certain content, companies like Facebook get to pick and choose winners, creating incentives for customers to use certain services because they don't eat into their data. This then makes it harder for smaller players to compete in the marketplace and quashes innovation.
Popular tech website Gizmodo put it most succinctly - “Indian net neutrality activists argued that Free Basics was a way for Facebook to shape internet access. Which is true. Zuckerberg & Co. countered that it’s actually a way to connect people who may otherwise not have internet access. Which is also true!”
TRAI, for all practical purposes, banned the operation of Free Basics and similar services in the country in February 2016, making it clear in its official ruling that “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.” Today’s decision by the government takes this a step further.. Media reports indicate that even the creation of such zero-rated platforms will be barred.
On the other hand, the Cellular Operators Association of India has urged the government to review practices with regard to traffic prioritization to foster 5G in India. Rajan Mathews, director general of the group, told Mint, “Many 5G applications will have stringent data communication requirements which require traffic management techniques.”
However, today’s new announcement is not a surprise. Last month, Trai and European telecom regulator BEREC jointly backed an open internet, calling for effective regulation of electronic communications. Trai and the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, or BEREC, signed a memorandum of understanding highlighting a common understanding of the building blocks of net neutrality rules and the core aspects of both the regulators’ responsibilities in preserving them. BEREC chairman Johannes Gungl said, “Net neutrality is a vital principle and an open internet is crucial for people around the globe. We are happy to have Trai as a partner to ensure a univocal protection of net neutrality principles for internet access services.”
And this collaboration between Trai and Berec came at the right time for net neutrality - four days after open internet rules expired in the US, legally allowing American ISPs to slow down, block or even offer paid prioritisation to some websites.
In December 2017, the US Federal Communications Commission , or the FCC, repealed the 2015 net neutrality rules passed by the Obama Administration. We have dug truly deep on this matter earlier and you can read and hear it here.
The FCC said it was returning to the "successful, bipartisan framework that helped the Internet grow and flourish for two decades prior to 2015". It also claimed the order was replacing unnecessary heheavy-handedegulations with increased transparency, strong consumer protection and, I quote, "common-sense regulations that will promote investment and broadband deployment".
The website Techcrunch noted that there is a risk the decision could have a domino effect. Telecom companies in several countries could lobby regulators to put an end to net neutrality. Quite simply, “the U.S. has done it, so why not us?”With Trai’s and Berec’s combined efforts, a huge part of the world’s population is now pro-net neutrality. Now we wait and watch how the others play this.