Net Neutrality upheld by TRAI
Nagpur: When our prime minister, Narendra Modi went to the US last September and had his ‘blockbuster’ public meetings, he had also met Mark Zuckerberg , Founder of Facebook, in Menlo Park. The venue of the meeting says it all about its agenda.
According to Wikipedia ” Menlo Park is an affluent city at the eastern edge of San Mateo County, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, in the United States. It is bordered by San Francisco Bay on the north and east; East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, and Stanford to the south; Atherton, North Fair Oaks, and Redwood City to the west. Menlo Park is one of the most educated cities in the state of California and the United States, with nearly 70% of its residents having earned an advanced degree. Menlo Park had 32,026 inhabitants according to the 2010 United States Census. In addition, Menlo Park was ranked in the top 15 US cities in CNN’s “Best Places for the Rich and Single” to live.
This meeting had happened when many Indian net users were up in arms against Facebook offering ‘Free Basics’ wherein Facebook was controlling free access to a selected number of web services through this. Their claim was that “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. service”. And then they had gone and signed contracts with big wigs like Reliance who would participate in this Free Basics Service!
A month after meeting Modi on his turf, Zuckerberg flew to India to do his own town hall meeting in New Delhi.
All this high level ‘P.R’ did not help this giant social networking site ultimately when yesterday TRAI in a landmark decision, that showed rare courage, published new regulations that ban differential pricing for data services, and make it easier for smaller firms to compete with established companies including Facebook.
Facebook’s argument was that it supported net neutrality because anybody could use Free Basics. Yet the company reserved the right to reject partners and disallowed voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) calls, high-resolution videos and photos that interfered with telco services – in direct contradiction to TRAI’s recommendation that people in rural areas should have access to more video content.
Facebook had campaigned vigorously for its free Basics, Remember when we were receiving notifications on our Timeline that ‘so many friends have signed for free basics’ and many of us had clicked to join in too without thinking too much about it? As per Guardian newspaper ” Facebook had tweaked the notifications tab on users’ homepages to notify them about friends who, apparently, supported free basics – which, as it turned out later, wasn’t entirely true”.
Thankfully, not all Indians were so gullible. Campaigns like ‘Save the internet’ and the ‘Web we want’ sprung up educating young Indians about Net Neutrality and why anyone tampering with it wasn’t a good or desirable move.
Even Nagpur Today, had joined in with this campaign, going to many Engineering college campuses and prominent city squares with its van blazoned with big lettering advocating Net Neutrality and urging youth to sign petitions against it and mail it to TRAI.
There is a feeling of triumph and jubilation over yesterday’s decision. “This is great news,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a member of the Save the internet campaign in favour of net neutrality. “It is what this country needed and it took a lot of effort pushing for it. It took a lot moral fibre for TRAI to stand up to the telcos.”
Renata Avila, programme manager for the Web We Want campaign at the World Wide Web Foundation said the decision by India – the world’s second largest internet population -followed a precedent set in the US and Chile which have adopted similar principles.
“The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots. We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open web. We call on companies and the government of India to work with citizens and civil society to explore new approaches to connect everyone as active users, whether through free data allowances, public access schemes or other innovative approaches.”
But apart from Facebook, even cellular operators are not happy with the decision, for obvious reasons!
Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, said the industry was disappointed with the ruling. “COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India. By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation… including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services.”
TRAI and Facebook + cellular operators have been at loggerheads on the issue of Net Neutrality from the beginning.
TRAI’s hands were in a way forced by the huge public outcry it received against a notification it had sent out.
TRAI’s verdict is the culmination of an 11-month-long process that began in March 2015 with a 118-page, jargon-filled “consultation paper”. It had recommended that telecom operators be allowed to charge extra for using WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other third-party internet-based apps and services.
TRAI asked the public to respond to 20 questions from the public, giving rise to a spirited, pro-net-neutrality campaign called Save The Internet, supported by lawyers, technologists, journalists and policy experts. They created a list of responses that users could copy, paste and email in just three clicks.
By 24 April, the last date on which people could send in responses, 1.1 million Indians had emailed TRAI, urging it to stop telecom companies from indulging in differential pricing.
Facebook which had first labeled its project internet.org had stepped up its public relations and lobbying in India, changing the project’s name from Internet.org to Free Basics, and taking full-page color advertisements in India’s newspapers that talked about “digital equality” and connecting people from rural areas.
Meanwhile, TRAI asked Reliance Communications, a major telecoms operator, to put its Free Basics partnership with Facebook on hold until the ruling by the regulatory body.
TRAI rebuked Facebook in January, complaining that the company hadn’t communicated the authority’s message to its users. In a letter to Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director in India, TRAI said that the company “remained silent” on the specific questions of whether or not telcos should be allowed to indulge in differential pricing, alternative revenue models and measures to ensure transparency if differential pricing were to be adopted.
In response, Facebook sent what TRAI described as a “templated response” which didn’t address the questions. The twin purposes of public consultations were to get “valuable inputs from all stakeholders” and to “foster a transparent regulatory environment”, said TRAI. “However, your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultation exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.”
TRAI also expressed its concern over Facebook’s “self-appointed spokesmanship” on behalf of its users, who had not authorised the company to do so.
This TRAI verdict is definitely not going to be the last word though…
TRAI’s 8 February ruling won’t be the last word on the net-neutrality debate in India. Jonnalagadda said that he expects Facebook and telecom operators to challenge the ruling in a higher court of law or before the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT).
Major telecom firms including Airtel, Reliance Communications and Idea Cellular still maintain that differential pricing of telecom services is necessary to fuel innovation.
Observors claimed that telcos are using this as an opportunity to “abandon” their traditional roles as provider of basic services, and playing “intermediary” between consumers and content creators. They will then “extract maximum valuation with utter disregard of not only the content industry, but also consumers, civil society and millions of entrepreneurs in this particular space”.
Be vigilant for the second round, this war is not over yet.
… Sunita Mudliyar- Associate Editor