Net neutrality advocates hail Trai verdict

by Prasad Krishna last modified Feb 14, 2016 11:16 AM
Facebook 'disappointed' with the ruling on differential pricing.

The article by Alnoor Peermohamed appeared in the Business Standard on February 9, 2016. Pranesh Prakash gave inputs.

India has demonstrated what a forward looking and pro-policy looks like, experts and net neutrality advocates said after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) turned down a proposal to allow services to function in the country.

“This ruling has happened in the face of enormous lobbying on the one side by very large and a ragtag bunch of people on the other. In spite of that, to see the right thing has prevailed, which is in the national interest and not what was masqueraded as national interest is very gratifying. This has not often taken place in policy making in India,” says Sharad Sharma, convenor, iSPIRT, a lobby group for indigenous software product firms.

Net neutrality activists across the world have lauded Trai’s decision not to allow large firms such as and Airtel to divide the Internet and offer selected services for free to consumers. The one year-long fight that began when Airtel proposed to offer internet companies the chance to offer customers their services for free, ended in stipulating fines of Rs 50,000 a day for companies offering differential pricing services, which is capped at Rs 50 lakh.

“This has resulted now in the most expensive and stringent regulation on differential pricing that exists anywhere in the world. Activists around the world would be looking to India and will definitely be using this landmark order to fight against elsewhere,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a think tank.

Facebook, which was one of the biggest stakeholders in the drive to allow differential pricing services in the country, said it was disappointed with the ruling. The firm has been accused of supporting net neutrality in the US, but standing in its way in India to get permissions to provide its platform in India.

“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we’ll continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings,” Facebook said in a statement.

Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama, who ran a campaign called Savetheinternet against Facebook’s Free Basics called this a victory to the youth of India, saying “this outcome indicates what happens when young people actually participate in a governance process”.

According to Pahwa, there’s far too much cynicism about governments not doing the right thing. “We hope this is the beginning of something new: of people believing that they can make a difference, and persevering towards helping form policies that ensure equity and freedom for everyone.”

He added: “There are many internet-related issues that have still to be looked at, especially internet shutdowns, censorship and the encryption policy. These impact all of us, and we should be ready to voice our point of view, and the government looks like it is listening.”

India’s software sector lobby group Nasscom, which had stood against Facebook’s Free Basics platform and for net neutrality in general congratulated Trai for its ruling to disallow zero-rating and differential pricing services in the country.

“Our submission highlighted the importance of net neutrality principles, non-discriminatory access and transparent business models aligned to the goal of enhancing internet penetration in the country. The Trai announcement resounds with the submission made by Nasscom and we would like to congratulate Trai for enshrining the principles of net neutrality,” R Chandrashekhar, president of Nasscom, said in a statement.