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The Big Picture – Net Neutrality: Has TRAI said the final word?

The Big Picture – Net Neutrality: Has TRAI said the final word?

Summary:

In a major support to Net Neutrality, TRAI recently ruled against differential pricing for data services. The TRAI ruling can be seen as a blow to Facebook’s Free Basics, Airtel Zero and other similar data services which offered access to some websites and content for free. TRAI has ruled against differential pricing in order to keep the Internet open and non-discriminatory for users. This is seen as an historic decision which will shape the future of the digital world and the internet. The decision comes after one of the most extensive consultations in public sphere witnessed in India ever.

However, Facebook has expressed its dissatisfaction over this decision. It might be recalled here that Facebook had recently launched an extensive social media campaign seeking support for its Free Basics across the sub continent. Facebook had argued that freebasics would lift people out of poverty, provide them quality education and also create millions of jobs.

TRAI’s stance on differential pricing is strong, clear, and laudable in the face of Facebook’s relentless onslaught. It is now being said that Facebook miscalculated in introducing the program in India. While Facebook expected to be welcomed with open arms, its message to the country focused on itself rather than the broad coalition of telecommunications firms supporting the effort. The result was inevitable. Some people even saw Facebook’s move as an attempt to colonize India’s cultural life and telecom infrastructure.

Reasons for TRAI’s stand on Net Neutrality:

  1. Capitalistic/Free market – Big corporations won’t be able to offer their services for free to people as it would be deemed unethical and unfair towards smaller players. The marketplace would be equally competitive for both startups and established companies. The competition from many would drive innovation and ideas for better products and services. Theoretically everyone has an equal chance to succeed.
  2. Assuring a level playing field – Making sure that websites are equally accessible to everyone and that one service is not given preference over another by the Internet Service Provider(ISP) by means of blocking content or having different speed lanes for different services through the activities of data throttling and traffic shaping.
  3. No censorship – Net neutrality laws would include clauses against censorship too. That would imply that governments or ISPs won’t have any rights to trim or block the content that people can access over the internet.
  4. Free Speech – Protecting the right to communicate freely without any restrictions. Content not being banned based on political motivations
  5. And last but not the least the will of the people. This verdict is nothing but a mandate of the more than 2.4 million people who responded favourably to Net Neutrality when TRAI issued a Consultation Paper on ‘Differential Pricing for Data Services’.

Was the TRAI right?

It is being argued that the poor nature of Facebook’s public-relations campaign did not influence Trai’s decision in any way. In any event, one of the limits of “public consultation” by regulators has been shown up in this case. It may not be wise to depend entirely on public consultation for a wide enough set of views, when a significant set of people affected by a regulatory decision – in this case, the large numbers of those unconnected to the digital world – are necessarily going to be unrepresented.

  • Trai’s mandate is to nurture the growth of telecommunications in India. Zero-rated offerings such as Free Basics would unquestionably have aided that aim, and thus Trai’s decision to ban them is difficult to explain.
  • There is no compelling evidence for harm to consumers being caused by the availability of free low-bandwidth websites. If there are eventual anti-competitive effects, as some fear, then those should be addressed by the Competition Commission of India as and when they arise – this is specifically mandated by the Trai Act.

Other choices:

  • Trai could have allowed differential pricing, subject to specific safeguards like ensuring non-discrimination to all consumers and transparency through disclosures of all details of the available schemes.
  • Trai could have made sure that consumers have the choice of accessing other services in the event a differentiated pricing policy of a service provider reduces consumer options.

Way ahead:

Given the size of the unconnected population in India and the poor quality of data connections in much of the country, this particular decision to restrict consumer choice completely is puzzling.

  • A free low-bandwidth option is unquestionably a distant second to the “real”, un-truncated internet; but given Indian conditions, it is far better than nothing.
  • Trai recognises these arguments in its explanation of its regulations – but chooses to ignore them, saying simply that it “can prove to be risky in the medium to long term as the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings”.
  • It is difficult to see the benefits of such apparent paternalism about consumer choice by a regulator.

Is it all over now?

No. The ban on differential pricing is only part of the battle for net neutrality. There are other tricks in the telcos’ bag that can still be deployed to discriminate and exercise control on the internet. These include commercial deals that allow faster data speeds to some sites and slower to other sites, referred to as ‘slow/fast lanes’, sponsored data or prioritisation.

Government’s role:

The ball is now in the government’s court. Now remains a huge government policy objective that has to be independently dealt with as we create the architecture of a neutral internet. In addition to completing the remaining parts of the net neutrality legal framework, the time is ripe the government to evolve a magna carta, a grand charter, of digital consumer rights for citizens.

  • This would include the right to privacy, a stringent regulatory framework to ensure adherence to qualityof-service norms, and adequate competition within the sector. These issues, along with net neutrality, will have to feature topmost on the government’s action plan to accelerate Digital India and transform the yet-unconnected Indians into Digital Indians.

Conclusion:

In any case, it would be premature to declare the debate over. It remains possible that Facebook – or some other entity that wishes to provide a zero-rated service – will appeal to the telecom tribunal or to the high court. Hopefully consumer concerns will get a look-in at that point.