Internet Freedom

Posted by Sunil Abraham and Vidushi Marda at Feb 15, 2016 02:51 AM |
The modern medium of the web is an open-sourced, democratic world in which equality is an ideal, which is why what is most important is Internet freedom.

The article by Sunil Abraham and Vidushi Marda was published by Asian Age on February 14, 2016.


What would have gone wrong if India’s telecom regulator Trai had decided to support programmes like Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel’s Zero Rating instead of issuing the regulation that prohibits discriminatory tariffs? Here are possible scenarios to look at in case the discriminatory tarrifs were allowed as they are in some countries.

Possible impact on elections

Facebook would have continued to amass its product — eyeballs. Indian eyeballs would be more valuable than others for three reasons 1. Facebook would have an additional layer of surveillance thanks to the Free Basics proxy server which stores the time, the site url and data transferred for all the other destinations featured in the walled garden 2. As part of Digital India, most government entities will set up Facebook pages and a majority of the interaction with citizens would happen on the social media rather than the websites of government entities and, consequently, Facebook would know what is and what is not working in governance 3. Given the financial disincentive to leave the walled garden, the surveillance would be total.

What would this mean for democracies? Eight years ago, Facebook began to engineer the News Feed to show more posts of a user’s friends voting in order to influence voting behavior. It introduced the “I’m Voting” button into 61 million users’ feeds during the 2010 US presidential elections to increase voter turnout and found that this kind of social pressure caused people to vote. Facebook has also admitted to populating feeds with posts from friends with similar political views. During the 2012 Presidential elections, Facebook was able to increase voter turnout by altering 1.9 million news feeds.

Indian eyeballs may not be that lucrative in terms of advertising. But these users are extremely valuable to political parties and others interested in influencing elections. Facebook’s notifications to users when their friends signed on to the “Support Free Basics” campaign was configured so that you were informed more often than with other campaigns. In other words, Facebook is not just another player on their platform. Given that margins are often slim, would Facebook be tempted to try and install a government of its choice in India during the 2019 general elections?

In times of disasters

Most people defending Free Basics and defending forbearance as the regulatory response in 2015/16 make the argument that “95 per cent of Internet users in developing countries spend 95 per cent of their time on Facebook”.

This is not too far from the truth as LirneAsia demonstrated in 2012 with most people using Facebook in Indonesia not even knowing they were using the internet. In other words, they argue that regulators should ignore the fringe user and fringe usage and only focus on the mainstream. The cognitive bias they are appealing to is smaller numbers are less important.

Since all the sublime analogies in the Net Neutrality debate have been taken, forgive us for using the scatological. That is the same as arguing that since we spend only 5% of our day in toilets, only 5% of our home’s real estate should be devoted to them.

Everyone agrees that it is far easier to live in a house without a bedroom than a house without a toilet. Even extremely low probabilities or ‘Black Swan’ events can be terribly important! Imagine you are an Indian at the bottom of the pyramid. You cannot afford to pay for data on your phone and, as a result, you rarely and nervously stray out of the walled garden of Free Basics.

During a natural disaster you are able to use the Facebook Safety Check feature to mark yourself safe but the volunteers who are organising both offline and online rescue efforts are using a wider variety of platforms, tools and technologies.

Since you are unfamiliar with the rest of the Internet, you are ill equipped when you try to organise a rescue for you and your loved ones.

Content and carriage converge

Some people argue that TRAI should have stayed off the issue since the Competition Commission of India (CCI) is sufficient to tackle Net Neutrality harms. However it is unclear if predatory pricing by Reliance, which has only 9% market share, will cross the competition law threshold for market dominance? Interestingly, just before the Trai notification, the Ambani brothers signed a spectrum sharing pact and they have been sharing optic fibre since 2013.

Will a content sharing pact follow these carriage pacts? As media diversity researcher, Alam Srinivas, notes “If their plans succeed, their media empires will span across genres such as print, broadcasting, radio and digital. They will own the distribution chains such as cable, direct-to-home (DTH), optic fibre (terrestrial and undersea), telecom towers and multiplexes.”

What does this convergence vision of the Ambani brothers mean for media diversity in India? In the absence of net neutrality regulation could they use their dominance in broadcast media to reduce choice on the Internet? Could they use a non-neutral provisioning of the Internet to increase their dominance in broadcast media? When a single wire or the very same radio spectrum delivers radio, TV, games and Internet to your home — what under competition law will be considered a substitutable product? What would be the relevant market? At the Centre for Internet and Society (CI S), we argue that competition law principles with lower threshold should be applied to networked infrastructure through infrastructure specific non-discrimination regulations like the one that Trai just notified to protect digital media diversity.

Was an absolute prohibition the best response for TRAI? With only two possible exemptions — i.e. closed communication network and emergencies - the regulation is very clear and brief. However, as our colleague Pranesh Prakash has said, TRAI has over regulated and used a sledgehammer where a scalpel would have sufficed. In CIS’ official submission, we had recommended a series of tests in order to determine whether a particular type of zero rating should be allowed or forbidden. That test may be legally sophisticated; but as TRAI argues it is clear and simple rules that result in regulatory equity. A possible alternative to a complicated multi-part legal test is the leaky walled garden proposal. Remember, it is only in the case of very dangerous technologies where the harms are large scale and irreversible and an absolute prohibition based on the precautionary principle is merited.

However, as far as network neutrality harms go, it may be sufficient to insist that for every MB that is consumed within Free Basics, Reliance be mandated to provide a data top up of 3MB.

This would have three advantages. One, it would be easy to articulate in a brief regulation and therefore reduce the possibility of litigation. Two, it is easy for the consumer who is harmed to monitor the mitigation measure and last, based on empirical data, the regulator could increase or decrease the proportion of the mitigation measure.

This is an example of what Prof Christopher T. Marsden calls positive, forward-looking network neutrality regulation. Positive in the sense that instead of prohibitions and punitive measures, the emphasis is on obligations and forward-looking in the sense that no new technology and business model should be prohibited.

What is Net neutrality?

According to this principle, all service providers and governments should not discriminate between various data on the internet and consider all as one. They cannot give preference to one set of apps/ websites while restricting others.

  • 2006: TRAI invites opinions regarding the regulation of net neutrality from various telecom industry bodies and stakeholdersFeb. 2012: Sunil Bharti Mittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel, suggests services like YouTube should pay an interconnect charge to network operators, saying that if telecom operators are building highways for data then there should be a tax on the highway
  • July 2012: Bharti Airtel’s Jagbir Singh suggests large Internet companies like Facebook and Google should share revenues with telecom companies.
  • August 2012: Data from M-Lab said You Broadband, Airtel, BSNL were throttling traffic of P2P services like BitTorrent
  • Feb. 2013: Killi Kiruparani, Minister for state for communications and technology says government will look into legality of VoIP services like Skype
  • June 2013: Airtel starts offering select Google services to cellular broadband users for free, fixing a ceiling of 1GB on the data
  • Feb. 2014: Airtel operations CEO Gopal Vittal says companies offering free messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp should be regulated
  • August 2014: TRAI rejects proposal from telecom companies to make messaging application firms share part of their revenue with the carriers/government
  • Nov. 2014: Trai begins investigation on Airtel implementing preferential access with special packs for WhatsApp and Facebook at rates lower than standard data rates
  • Dec. 2014: Airtel launches 2G, 3G data packs with VoIP data excluded in the pack, later launches VoIP pack.
  • Feb. 2015: Facebook launches Internet.org with Reliance communications, aiming to provide free access to 38 websites through single app
  • March 2015: Trai publishes consultation paper on regulatory framework for over the top services, explaining what net neutrality in India will mean and its impact, invited public feedback
  • April 2015: Airtel launches Airtel Zero, a scheme where apps sign up with airtle to get their content displayed free across the network. Flipkart, which was in talks for the scheme, had to pull out after users started giving it poor rating after hearing about the news
  • April 2015: Ravi Shankar Prasad, Communication and information technology minister announces formation of a committee to study net neutrality issues in the country
  • 23 April 2015: Many organisations under Free Software Movement of India protested in various parts of the country. In a counter measure, Cellular Operators Association of India launches campaign , saying its aim is to connect the unconnected citizens, demanding VoIP apps be treated as cellular operators
  • 27 April 2015: Trai releases names and email addresses of users who responded to the consultation paper in millions. Anonymous India group, take down Trai’s website in retaliation, which the government could not confirm
  • Sept. 2015: Facebook rebrands Internet.org as Free Basics, launches in the country with massive ads across major newspapers in the country. Faces huge backlash from public
  • Feb. 2016: Trai rules in favour of net neutrality, barring telecom operators from charging different rates for data services.

The writers work at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru. CIS receives about $200,000 a year from WMF, the organisation behind Wikipedia, a site featured in Free Basics and zero-rated by many access providers across the world

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