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Trai upholds Net Neutrality in setback to Facebook’s Free Basics

by Prasad Krishna last modified Feb 15, 2016 02:01 AM
Trai says Internet service providers will not be allowed to discriminate on pricing of data access for different web services.

The article by Moulishree Srivastava and Shauvik Ghosh was published in Livemint on February 9, 2016. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

India’s telecom regulator has barred Internet service providers from offering customers preferential tariffs to access certain content over concerns that it will violate Net neutrality norms, dealing a blow to Facebook Inc.’s free data service plan.

Internet service providers, including telecom operators, are prohibited from offering discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said on Monday. Service providers that violate these rules will be fined Rs.50,000 per day to a maximum of Rs.50 lakh. Trai said it may review the rules after two years.

The decision ends a long battle between Facebook and the country’s telecom operators, including Bharti Airtel Ltd, on one side and Net neutrality activists on the other. Facebook had launched an intense lobbying effort that included full-page advertisements in newspapers and an Internet campaign to assure people that its Free Basics plan, which allows access to its social network and some other websites without a data plan, would benefit millions of poor Indians.

“BJP wholeheartedly welcomes the Trai decision on differential pricing. The decision is a clear expression of popular will,” said telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Monday. “The government made sure proper processes were followed at all levels which eventually led to the victory of an open and equal Internet... It is gladdening to see that the NDA government ensured unparalleled transparency in the entire issue of net neutrality,” he added.

Net neutrality requires Internet service providers not to discriminate on online data by user, content, site, platform, application, mode of communication or price.

“The net neutrality activists... have got exactly what they wanted—the complete prohibition of the differential pricing,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bengaluru-based research organization Centre for Internet and Society. “Before Facebook started with its aggressive and outrageous campaign to promote Free Basics, the Net neutrality debate was a peaceful discussion. The way it has behaved must have led the regulator to lose trust that big companies can self-regulate.”

It, however, remains to be seen whether telcos challenge the regulation in court, he added.

“This has been a litigious issue and a lot of money is at stake so quite likely, I think, they will go to court,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and part of Save The Internet campaign.

The basic rationale behind the regulation is that the network that carries the data should be agnostic to data packets, R.S. Sharma, chairman of Trai, told reporters.

“Anything on the Internet cannot be priced discriminately based on source, destination, content and applications,” he said.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company will carefully study what the regulator has said and comment accordingly.

Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications Ltd (Facebook partnered with R-Com in India) declined to comment.

Differential pricing based on the network speed, Sharma said, is a larger issue and so is Net neutrality.

“We have used the term discriminatory pricing in place of differential pricing, because differential pricing in the consultation paper had a particular context. Differential word was quite contextual in the regulation, but it was misunderstood in a very larger context. Therefore, to differentiate, we are calling it discriminatory,” he said.

However, Sharma said that the Net neutrality debate is not over.

“Net neutrality is a larger question, and we have not gone into that question, though, I must admit, differential pricing is looking at Net neutrality from a tariff perspective. Net neutrality has a number of other components which is fast lane, throttling and differentially treating the packet in terms of speed etc. So this is not a part of this regulation,” Sharma said.

Amresh Nandan, research director at Gartner in India, said the Trai order favouring Net neutrality is in line with rules in the US. “The European Union has also ruled in favour of treating all Internet traffic equally,” Nandan said.

Nandan said the proponents of Net neutrality all over the world have been highlighting the importance of democratic values of the Internet and even a marginal attempt to curb it can possibly trigger all kinds of differentiation.

All the major telcos in India have, however, been lobbying the regulator to allow differential-pricing plans for data services. The telcos said such tariffs will increase Internet penetration in the country, benefiting consumers in the long run. They further argued that the existing legal framework is sufficient for regulating and monitoring differential pricing measures provided by the service providers and that Trai can deal with any issue regarding anti-competitive practices on a case-by-case basis as and when they arise.

Activists say such a practice will undermine competition and create monopolies. Differential pricing, they said, will allow big companies to buy favoured treatment from carriers.

Telecom operators said they were disappointed with the ruling. “Differential pricing could be useful in connecting the unconnected in India. This is an upfront disbarment,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, the lobby group that represent some of the major telcos. “We believe that it was an appropriate tool to allow consumers who have never been on the Internet, to enjoy getting accustomed to it without getting sticker shock.”

Hemant Joshi, a partner at Deloitte Haskins and Sells Llp, said differential pricing was a well-accepted principle across industries.

“The concept inherently recognizes the economic principle of paying differently for different levels of service and experience. In telecom, there are virtual highways that need to follow the same principle. More awareness and education is needed around the economics of differential pricing and its long-term implications on the Industry and the consumer,” he added.

Trai, which put up the consultation paper on differential pricing on 9 December, asked four specific questions, broadly on whether telecom operators should be allowed to offer different services at different price points and models that can be implemented to achieve this.

Trai extended the deadline for comments and counter-comments on its consultation paper to 7 January and 14 January from 31 December and 7 January, respectively. For the consultation process, Trai said that majority of the individual comments received did not address the specific questions that were raised in the consultation paper.

P.R. Sanjai and Ashish K. Mishra in Mumbai contributed to this story.