TRAI goes off at a tangent on net neutrality

IN Media Practice | 17/04/2015
For internet freedom activists, the TRAI consultation paper is trying to smuggle in controls that will deepen the digital divide.
GEETA SESHU explains why. Pix: ToI report on April 15, 2015.
The unprecedented backlash on social media over the threat to net neutrality has resulted in Flipkart’s pullout from talks with Airtel Zero and the termination of the partnership between NDTV and Cleartrip from Facebook’s 

Interestingly, Times Internet Ltd, which runs its online platform, has announced that it will pull the Times of India out of in the interests of net neutrality if its competitors do so too. Sites like Times Jobs and Maharasthra Times will pull out as their competitors are not on the zero-rate platform.

Undoubtedly, the campaign spearheaded by internet activists to preserve and protect the Internet as a digital space that provides equal access to all has resounded with users in India and forced the internet companies to do a rethink.

At the last count, there were 679,178 mails sent to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), according to the website managed by, the group spearheading the campaign. The cheeky video put together by the comedy group All India Bakchod, in collaboration with internet site Medianama, went viral and twitter hashtag #netneutrality got a huge response too. 

The campaign simply pointed out that internet service providers must give customers equal access to all lawful websites and services on the internet, without giving priority to any website over another and that the internet be maintained as an open platform. 
Laws such as the Information Technology Act regulated Over the Top (OTT) services, the campaign pointed out. They urged users to send letters against the licensing of applications or web services. 
But TRAI chairperson Rahul Khullar chose to look at the groundswell of opinion in favour of net neutrality as a ‘moral’ issue and said that the debate was being compounded by a corporate war between a media house and a telecom operator. 

Indeed, access is key to any understanding of net neutrality. The internet as it works today provides equal access to all online content to all users across the globe. So, given the same speed and cost, users can expect and do get, the same access to all sites. Now, the TRAI consultation paper on OTT services goes into net neutrality in great detail and takes a rather circuitous route to tell us that the regulation of commercial services will actually be good for customers and increase internet traffic. In short, that it will increase access for all. But the reality is quite different.

TRAI figures for active wireless subscribers for February 2015 is 851.96 million and private subscriber providers (read Reliance, Airtel, Vodafone, Idea etc) account for over 90 per cent of these. 
India’s mobile subscriber base is increasing rapidly. By December last year, smartphones helped bring 173 million mobile phone users to the internet and the figure is expected to touch 213 million by June this year, according to the ‘Mobile Internet in India 2014report from the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International. 
But, as the report said, an overwhelming majority of these users are in urban India, with rural India accounting for barely 49 million of internet users (as on March 2015). 
The figures are alluring enough for Facebook to launch its in India with Reliance and provide more than 35 apps for free, including a range of news sites like Aaj Tak, Amar Ujala, Times of India, IBNLive and India Today and sites for cricket, parenting, jobs, the weather and astrology. 
The news sites, needless to say, dominate the package. Facebook tells us that its initiative is really designed to provide access to the internet to all the digital have-nots.

OTTs – or the communication services and the apps that bring us the messaging, voice telephony, news and music and videos and pictures and games to our phones - have become the internet experience for many mobile subscribers. 

So while the major media houses and the telecom companies are in a race for grabbing as much of the mobile subscriber market as they can (and the zero-rating model is just one of them), it is important to remember that several independent sites which may not be selling any services will remain out of the purview of this mobile internet. 

And then, to complicate this situation, we have the TRAI consultation paper seeking greater regulation of the OTTs. While on the one hand, it says the debate over net neutrality is primarily an economic one, on the other it raises issues of national security and privacy. 

Several OTT communication services (like messaging and voice telephony), the TRAI report helpfully tells us, actually compete with the telecom service providers. The latter are regulated and the former are not.

Public safety is a casualty if the OTT service is not regulated, the TRAI report says, giving the example of a service like Ola or Uber (under a cloud for the rape of a customer by the taxi-driver registered with Uber) which connect private taxi owners directly with users and therefore ‘pose certain unanticipated risks’. 

The TRAI report says that national security concerns over communication services that use VoIP or the use of cloud services that are located in another country or the protection of financial data in the possession of e-commerce sites are valid. So too are privacy concerns over data mining by social media networks for commercial use. Even the commercial success of some OTT services (which have displaced brick and mortar businesses) can be disruptive, says the report. 

Clearly, the communication services and application services are both a threat, for different reasons. The TRAI report does point out that most of the OTTs work only with high bandwidth speed and high-end smart devices and that Facebook Lite attempts to work with 2G devices. 

But it goes out on a limb to explain that OTT services can fool gullible users and even play with their emotions (citing the controversial Facebook experiment on psychological manipulation). 

Unfortunately, instead of strengthening consumer rights (a forgotten issue) the TRAI report suggests different licensing and regulatory mechanisms for communication and application services and bringing them into the purview of interception. 
It dwells on a two-tiered pricing policy and designated delivery networks for Content and Application Providers to help the small fry compete with the big fish. ‘An over-application of net neutrality rules will actually reduce the ability of providers to offer properly tiered services to third parties’, the TRAI report says, adding that strict net neutrality principles and non-regulation are both undesirable. 
All of this has raised fears over backdoor controls on the internet. As it is, we are far from being a digital nation. In a country where bandwidth speed is among the lowest in the world and internet penetration still woefully low, and where the digital divide is cast along class, caste and gender lines, it would have been more useful for TRAI to discuss constructive means to get the telecom companies to bridge the gap. Instead, all it did was queer the pitch for one half of digital India.
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