Curious Case Of Net-Neutrality
Given the obscure nature of modern telecommunications law, it is unsurprising that an issue so central to the globalised economy has evaded mainstream consideration. But determined social media activism has moved the conversation on the need for Indian lawmakers to ensh-rine it in law
Unless one hasnâ€™t burrowed oneâ€™s head in the sand, or has been on a sabbatical like RaGa, one must have at least heard or read the word â€˜net neutralityâ€™ over the past few weeks. Thatâ€™s the hottest ongoing debate all over the Internet/social media, in India at least, whether some apps can be made available for free by asking developers to pay for data consumed by its users.
Now, this has led to a broad array of views from how several start-ups will be at disadvantage and change the way we use Internet. Some have also taken the middle ground, urging users to discuss the issue in such a way that neither telecom operators nor start-ups have to suffer. So, everyone has an opinion on whatâ€™s happening and what can be done. Throughout last year, Indian telecom companies have been quite vocal about their dislike for over-the-top (OTT) services such as messaging and calling apps eating into one of their biggest revenue streamsâ€”voice calling and SMSes. Telecom industries had started seeking Telecom Regulatory Authority of Indiaâ€™s (TRAIâ€™s) recommendation on regulation of OTT services, and were trying hard to make a strong case to TRAI about OTT services hampering their revenue.
In December last year, Airtel, the countryâ€™s largest mobile operator with over 200 million active subscribers, sent shivers to down the spine of its customers: it wanted to charge customers extra for using services like Skype, Viber and Google Hangouts even while they had already paid for Internet access. If customers wanted to use a service that used Internet data to make voice callsâ€”something known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)â€”they would need to subscribe to an additional VoIP pack, the company said.
Airtelâ€™s announcement made customers jittery. Twitterati reacted strongly and the tweets flew thick and fast. In less than four days, Airtel had to backtrack on its plans. It would wait, it said, for a consultation paper about net neutrality that the TRAI was to publish soon.
TRAI released this consultation paperâ€”a mind-numbing 118-page documentâ€”and 20 questions that it wants people to answer about why they think they deserve (or donâ€™t deserve) an open Internet. The paper titled â€œRegulatory Framework for Over-the-Top (OTT) services,â€ sought public opinion until Apr. 24, on whether telecom companies in India, like Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance, should be allowed to charge consumers differently for using different websites and mobile applications. The paper laments: â€œTelecom operators can and do resort to differential treatment of Internet services on their network. Video streaming services impose large demands on the network in terms of traffic load, bandwidth requirements and congestion. The most popular strategies employed by Telecom Operators include fair usage policies, toll boothing, zero-rating, data caps and traffic management. Should they be allowed to differentiate between Internet/App/OTT players based on the services they provide? Or, should restraints be imposed on what can and cannot be done?â€
The paper classifies everything on the Internet as people know itâ€”Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Hike, Amazon, Flipkart, Ola, Facebook Messenger, BlackBerry Messenger, iMessage, online games, music streaming services like Pandora and moreâ€”as OTT, telecom industry terminology for â€œover-the-topâ€ services. The consultation paper seems to be tilted towards the telecom industry, when it defines how the internet traffic is managed. It says: â€œThere are two broad forms of Internet traffic management: (i) Best-effortsâ€ internet access, under which telecom operators attempt to convey all traffic on more or less equal terms. This results in an â€˜open internetâ€™ with no specific services being hindered or blocked, although some may need to be managed during times of congestion. (ii) Managed services, under which telecom operators prioritise certain traffic according to the value they ascribe to it. For example, prioritisation of a high quality IPTV service over other traffic. This amounts to a form of discrimination, but one that is normally efficiency enhancing.â€
The paper also shows how telecom operators can discriminate with peopleâ€™s internet services and maximise their profits. The paper further says network discrimination can take place in the following ways:
- Blocking of apps and services, including VoIP, to maximise profits for telecom operator-owned apps and services.
- Throttling: Slowing internet speeds for specific services and apps or asking users to pay extra. For example, In US Comcast throttled Netflix before Netflix agreed to pay for a â€œfast laneâ€ access.
- Blocking websites: Telecom operators can block websites for a number of reasonsâ€”to secure their network, avoid competition, and sometimes for social, public relations or political reasons.
- Preferential treatment:
They can impose data limits on internet access while allowing exception for their own proprietary streaming or service.
So how will this â€˜discriminationâ€™ affect people? For starters, one can kiss goodbye to paying a flat fee for using a certain amount of data each month and accessing whatever one want. Peopleâ€™s Internet will be sliced up into â€œpacksâ€â€”Rs 50 extra for a YouTube pack, for instance, Rs 30 for a WhatsApp pack, Rs 20 to access Google search, and on and on it goes. The network operator might also decide to charge a service like YouTube if it wishes to reach people. If they donâ€™t pay up, their traffic will be slowed down. Operators can also use this tactic to strategically push their own services over the competition. Airtel, for example, owns a music-streaming app called Wynk, to which it might provide full access to its own network customers while throttling competitors like Gaana or Saavn.
While responding to all these allegations in an email sent to all Airtel customers, Bharti Airtel MD and CEO Gopal Vittal (India and South Asia) said that â€œa lot of conversationâ€ in the last few days has painted Airtel Zero â€œas a move that violates net neutralityâ€.
â€œWe have been very concerned at the incorrect information that has been carried by some quarters in the media as well as in social media. I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air and reiterate that we are completely committed to net neutrality,â€ Vittal said in the email to customers.
In response to this letter, Savetheinternet.in, a volunteer-run campaign fighting for net neutrality in the country, has written an open letter. It questions Airtelâ€™s commitment to net neutrality based on its past history. It points out that Airtel Zero, which employs differential pricing for content, with some sites costing zero is a violation of net neutrality. It also highlights instances, where Airtel gave fast lane access to YouTube during IPL 2010, and how they had been throttling BitTorrent traffic in India for years. Savetheinternet.in was launched recently by a volunteer-run group of over 50 net neutrality supporters, to frame a response to TRAIâ€™s consultation paper on the regulation of OTT services.
Internet users from all over the country sent more than 1.5 lakh email petitions to TRAI, the biggest response to any consultation paper it has floated, urging it to protect network neutrality in the country. A video created by stand-up comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) also pushed users to sign up. The video was shared on Facebook, which took it off, mistaking it for spam. It was restored after users complained and has been viewed 1.14 million times since uploaded. A petition on the change.org website opposing differential pricing for Internet services registered more than 1.6 lakh supporters. The petition introduced four months ago had been endorsed by 75,000 people in last two weeksâ€™ time. It is addressed to the TRAI, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and the Telecom Department.
Itâ€™s important to remember that itâ€™s not just telecom companies that are interested in a non-neutral Internet in India. According to the TRAI consultation paper, 83 per cent of Indiaâ€™s Internet users access the Internet from their mobile phones. This massive population is crucial for multi-billion dollar corporations like Twitter, Facebook and Google. In February, Reliance Communications and Facebook partnered to launch Internet.org in India, a service whose pretentious aim was to bring the Internet to the next billion people. In reality, it grossly violated net neutrality by offering free access to a handpicked list of websites and social networks for free, while making users pay for others. After a week of aggressive lobbying by campaigners for net neutrality, three Indian websites pulled out of internet.org.
Travel website ClearTrip.com, news channel NDTV and mobile app NewsHunt, pulled content from internet.org. The Times Group, owner of the Times of India, also pulled TimesJobs and Maharashtra Times from the platform and said it would withdraw Times of India content only if its direct competitors agreed to do so.
The government also backed net-neutrality, as Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the common man should be able to access Internet without discrimination and declared that the final decision on the controversial net-neutrality issue would be taken by the Telecom Department and not the regulator. â€œWe feel the Internet is the creation of human mind. Internet should have linkages to the common man in a non-discriminatory manner,â€ Telecom Minister told media at a hurriedly convened press conference. He informed that a six-member panel, set up by Telecom Department, would submit its recommendations next month, following which a final view would be taken on net-neutrality, the principle that guarantees consumers equal and non-discriminatory access to all data, apps and services on the Internet. â€œWe are doing so (coming out with a report) independent of TRAI. This is happening for the first time because of the gravity of the matter,â€ the Minister said, adding further that the regulatory authority was an advisory body whose advice was not binding on the government. Political leaders cutting across party lines too have weighed in. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Congress leader Digvijay Singh and DMK leader Stalin spoke out in favour of a free and open Internet.
In fact, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, in the ongoing session of Parliament, raised the issue of net-neutrality, sought suspension of Question Hour in Lok Sabha and gave a notice for an adjournment motion to discuss the matter immediately.
A strong plea was made in the Lower House for ensuring net-neutrality with demands that the recent consultation paper brought out by TRAI should be scrapped and attempts by certain telecom and internet service providers be scuttled.
Raising the issue during Zero Hour, M B Rajesh (CPI-M) had alleged that the consultation paper brought out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was â€œblatantly supportingâ€ assault on net-neutrality by telecom and internet service providers.
Net-neutrality has already found backing from western countries. Earlier this year, the US adopted this principle, implying that service providers treat all data on the Internet equally and not impose differential pricing or discriminate among users, content sites, platforms and apps.
Last April, lawmakers of European Union voted in favour of net-neutrality and against a two-tiered Internet, in what was the first stage of the entire process. The proposal needs to be ratified by the European Council of Ministers comprising representatives of all 28 EU countries. The EU is expected to decide on this issue later this year.
Given the obscure nature of modern telecommunications law, it is unsurprising that an issue so central to the globalised economy has evaded mainstream consideration. But determined social media activism after the US regulator moved to classify the internet as a utility in February this year, thus adopting net-neutrality, and Airtel launched a platform called Airtel Zero that would exempt certain services from data charges on the network, has moved the conversation on the need for Indian lawmakers to enshrine it in law. Nearly four lakh emails have been sent in three days, imploring TRAI to safeguard net-neutrality. Without a protection from law, big companies like Google and Amazon would be able to pay Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for privileged â€œfast lanesâ€ or make deals allowing consumers to access their services for free. This would create a differential environment where such big companies would be able to protect their dominant positions from challenges by smaller start-ups, oppressing innovation and harming the level playing field so integral to the emergence of one-time up-starts like Flipkart and Facebook.
What Is Net-Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers and governments 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.
Why the brouhaha?
Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to devise new schemes to charge you more for access and services, making it harder for you to communicate online. The Internet could come to resemble cable TV, where gatekeepers exert control over where you go and what you see.
Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to block content and speech they donâ€™t like, reject apps that compete with their own offerings, and prioritize Web traffic (reserving the fastest loading speeds for the highest bidders and sticking everyone else with the slowest).
How it started
The problem began with Indian telecom players like Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance woke up and realised that users were replacing traditional texting with WhatsApp or Viber and traditional network calling with apps such as Skype (also called Over-The-Top services). They now want the right to charge what they want, when they want and how they want.
Whatâ€™s being done about this situation?
A group of Internet users has started a campaign asking the public to send submissions to TRAI, expressing their grief and discomfort about how telecom carriers are snatching away free Internet from them. Over 3 lakh e-mail petitions have already been sent via www.savetheinternet.in .
Comedy group AIB released a video on YouTube explaining the importance of net neutrality in India, and why users need to support it. In less than two days, the video got nearly a million views
Political parties too have been voicing their concerns. The Congress party has called for the committee set up by the telecom ministry on the issue be disbanded when the Centre had powers under Section 25 of the TRAI Act to issue any direction to the authority in public interest.
Questions Raised By TRAI
Q: Is it too early to establish a regulatory framework for Internet/OTT services, since internet penetration is still evolving, access speeds are generally low and there is limited coverage of high-speed broadband in the country? Or, should some beginning be made now with a regulatory framework that could be adapted to changes in the future? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Should the Internet/OTT players offering communication services (voice,Â Â Â Â Â Â messaging and video call services through applications (resident either in the country or outside) be brought under the licensing regime? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Is the growth of Internet/OTT impacting the traditional revenue stream of Telecom operators/Telecom operators? If so, is the increase in data revenues of the Telecom Operators sufficient to compensate for this impact? Please comment with reasons.
Q: Should the Internet/OTT players pay for use of the Telecom Operators network over and above data charges paid by consumers? If yes, what pricing options can be adopted? Could such options include prices based on bandwidth consumption? Can prices be used as a means of product/service differentiation? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Do you agree that imbalances exist in the regulatory environment in the operation of Internet/OTT players? If so, what should be the framework to address these issues? How can the prevailing laws and regulations be applied to Internet/OTT players (who operate in the virtual world) and compliance enforced? What could be the impact on the economy? Please comment with justifications.
Q: How should the security concerns be addressed with regard to Internet/OTT players providing communication services? What security conditions such as maintaining data records, logs etc. need to be mandated for such Internet/OTT players? And, how can compliance with these conditions be ensured if the applications of such Internet/OTT players reside outside the country? Please comment with justifications.
Q: How should the Internet/OTT players offering app services ensure security, safety and privacy of the consumer? How should they ensure protection of consumer interest? Please comment with justifications
Q: In what manner can the proposals for a regulatory framework for OTTs in India draw from those of ETNO, referred to in para or the best practices? And, what practices should be proscribed by regulatory fiat? Please comment with justifications.
Q: What are your views on net-neutrality in the Indian context? How should the various principles be dealt with? Please comment with justifications.
Q: What forms of discrimination or traffic management practices are reasonable and consistent with a pragmatic approach? What should or can be permitted? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Should the Telecom Operators be mandated to publish various traffic management techniques used for different OTT applications? Is this a sufficient condition to ensure transparency and a fair regulatory regime?
Q: How should the conducive and balanced environment be created such that Telecom Operators are able to invest in network infrastructure and CAPs are able to innovate and grow? Who should bear the network upgradation costs? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Should Telecom Operators be allowed to implement non-price based discrimination of services? If so, under what circumstances are such practices acceptable? What restrictions, if any, need to be placed so that such measures are not abused? What measures should be adopted to ensure transparency to consumers? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Is there a justification for allowing differential pricing for data access and OTT communication services? If so, what changes need to be brought about in the present tariff and regulatory framework for telecommunication services in the country? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Should OTT communication service players be treated as Bulk User of Telecom Services (BuTS)? How should the framework be structured to prevent any discrimination and protect stakeholder interest? Please comment with justification.
Q: What framework should be adopted to encourage India specific OTT apps? Please comment with justifications.
Q: If the App based/OTT communication service players are to be licensed, should they be categorised as ASP or CSP? If so, what should be the framework? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Is there a need to regulate subscription charges for App based/OTT communication services? Please comment with justifications.
Q: What steps should be taken by the Government for regulation of non-communication App based/OTT players? Please comment with justifications.
Q: Are there any other issues that have a bearing on the subject discussed?
Response Of Mark Zuckerberg On Net-Neutrality
Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. Iâ€™d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see.
First, Iâ€™ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet.
In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the worldâ€”and now they could actually make that happen through the internet.
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.
I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities.
In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isnâ€™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 we created Internet.org, our effort 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 internetâ€™s value.
It helps include everyone in the worldâ€™s opportunities.
Weâ€™ve made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org. In India, weâ€™ve already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. And we just launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today.
Weâ€™re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.
We fully support net neutrality.
We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators donâ€™t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. Itâ€™s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.
But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principlesâ€”universal connectivity and net neutralityâ€”can and must coexist.
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone canâ€™t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
Internet.org doesnâ€™t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanesâ€”and it never will. Weâ€™re open for all mobile operators and weâ€™re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected. Arguments about net neutrality shouldnâ€™t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online wonâ€™t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.
Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides. And we can all benefit from the perspectives, creativity and talent of the people not yet connected.
We have a historic opportunity to connect billions of more people worldwide for the first time. We should work together to make that happen now.
By Nilabh Krishna