The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has expectedly and rightly come out in favour of ‘net neutrality’. To reduce legal disputes, the Authority has recommended the terms of the licence agreements with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) be amended to ensure consumers get unrestricted Internet access. TRAI has thoughtfully excluded emergency and specialised services, where there can be special pricing of content. For policing and preventing restrictive practices, the Department of Telecom has been asked to set up a multi-stakeholder body that will include ISPs, user councils and civil society members.
These recommendations have come after a long consultative process of almost two years. The debate was triggered when Facebook and Airtel tried to bring in ‘special’ packages. In response, in February 2016, TRAI had imposed an interim ban on telecom companies charging layered rates for data services.
Ironically, in the US, which enshrined ‘net neutrality’ in law in 2015, the wheel has turned a full circle and the US telecom regulator FCC is now readying the pitch to overturn these rules next month. Net neutrality assumes the Internet to be a ‘natural resource’, as natural as water and air. The logical extension is that the service providers who ride on the Internet must give unrestricted access to the consumer treating all traffic equally, without regard for the type, origin, or destination of the content.
The ISPs say they should be allowed to charge companies like Netflix and YouTube who ‘hog the Internet highway’ and make huge profits off the back of their infrastructure. However, consumers pay the ISPs for the use of data, and charging companies like Netflix, will mean these charges will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. Facebook is equally hypocritical. While in the US it champions ‘net neutrality’, in the developing world, in its drive for more consumers, the company has come out against it with veiled packages like ‘Free Basics’.