Insights into Editorial: A neutral Internet

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Insights into Editorial: A neutral Internet


 

Context:

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) finally came out with clear guidelines in favour of Net neutrality that are consistent with its earlier stand on Facebook’s Free Basics proposal. After consultation papers issued in May 2016 and this January, the regulator reiterated that there cannot be discriminatory treatment of websites on the Internet by service providers.

Introduction

In the last few decades, the Internet has emerged as an important resource for innovation and economic growth and as a medium to support information exchange within and across borders. It has attained a size unrivalled by any other network by several orders of magnitude. The Internet has come to be created by the cooperative efforts of several stakeholders, but is controlled in its entirety by none.

The future growth of telecom sector and of other access networks is contingent upon innovation in and growth of the Internet infrastructure and the many applications, content and services linked to it. However, increasingly, concerns have been raised globally as well as in India relating to the potential for discriminatory treatment of Internet traffic by the entities that control access to the Internet.

These concerns regarding non-discriminatory access have become the centre of a global policy debate, often referred to as the debate on “net neutrality”.

What is “net neutrality”?

The term “net neutrality” was coined to represent the idea that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites and platforms equally.

Over the past few years, this term has acquired a central place in many global debates on Internet policy and governance. Interestingly, most jurisdictions, including those that are said to have adopted a “net neutrality” framework; do not explicitly define the term in their policy or regulatory framework. Instead, they have tried to evolve appropriate principles of non-discrimination and neutral access in their respective contexts.

Key highlights from TRAI recommendations on Net Neutrality:

TRAI’s decision comes in the wake of international focus on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s decision to scrap regulations on service providers imposed during the Obama administration. While batting for the right to an open Internet, however, TRAI has been careful to allow some exceptions that allow companies to discriminate between content if it helps them regulate the flow of traffic or offer “specialised services”.

  1. Discriminatory treatment of content is prohibited. TRAI warned providers against the practice of blocking certain websites and tinkering with content speeds. Internetaccess services should be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.
  2. Content delivery networks (CDN): TRAI has kept content delivery networks (CDN) out of the regulation. CDNs enable telecom deliver content within their network without going through the public internetin order to create a content ecosystem to drive user traction.

Several reasons have been cited in favour of such exclusion.

  • o It has been contended that CDNs reduce latency and congestion and improve the overall efficiency in the delivery of traffic.
  • o It is not a consumer based offering – there is no direct link with end-user, nor is it a licensed service.
  • o CDNs do not slow down other applications; to the contrary, they benefit other users by decongesting the network.
  1. Internet of Things(IoT), as a class of services, is not excluded from the scope of the restriction on non-discriminatory treatment.

However, critical IoT services, which may be identified by department of telecom as specialised services which could include telemedicine, B2B services will be automatically excluded.

  1. Watchdog: TRAI has also recommended a watchdog along the lines of BARC India for enforcing Net Neutralityand proposed reasonable measures of traffic management, in line with TRAI guidelines.
  2. International treaties, court orders, government order on blocking certain sites are exempt from these guidelines.

Regarding Concerns of service providers

While TRAI’s new guidelines will help the cause of building the Internet as a public platform with open access to all, the concerns of service providers should not be dismissed altogether.

The Internet has spread all over the world, so widely that many believe it is now an essential good. But the infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the Internet has not come without huge investments by private service providers.

So any regulation that severely restricts the ability of companies to earn sufficient returns on investment will only come at the cost of the welfare of the public.

In this connection, TRAI has been open to adopting a nuanced view that differentiates between various forms of content instead of imposing a blanket ban on all forms of price differentiation.

Way forward:

TRAI’s measured response is likely to effectively address the problem of anti-competitive practices adopted by certain providers. Interestingly, it has left it, with important caveats, to the government to decide on services that count as “specialised” and deserve exceptional treatment by regulators.

A proper mechanism needs to be instituted to make sure that the exceptions are not used as loopholes by the big Internet players.

Policymakers will also need to think hard about creating an appropriate legal framework to prevent the capture of regulation by special interests.