Context: In a historic decision Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) barred differential pricing for data over internet a few days back.
Q. What was the main issue before TRAI?
Whether or not differential or discriminatory data pricing is permissible or not. For instance, in Airtel Zero package, for a few sites and applications data charge would be borne by app maker and no consumer. In Free Basics Platform, only certain sites were provided for free.
Q. What’s the problem with that? To me, it looks like such a great idea. Something is better than nothing, right?
It’s not such a great idea because
1. It compartmentalizes internet into walled gardens, where some people will have access to whole internet, while others only to certain sites vetted by corporations.
2. Eventually those people might come to think that Facebook is internet, it will hamper growth of internet and it’s open architecture.
3. Internet is based on network economy and it will benefit only those few websites in walled garden.
4. There are no free lunches in this world. This whole free thing is ultimately based on the data economy and people who sign up for these free things may not even be aware of what data and meta data they may be parting with.
5. In the context of huge information asymmetry between ISPs and consumers, it’s absolutely essential for Govt to protect consumer interest.
Add to these run of the mill points such as
Internet giants could easily afford to participate in such programs, putting new players at a disadvantage.
Q. What do supporters of such free programmes have to say about all this?
1. Poor unconnected were getting to access some sites, they will lose access to those.
2. Broadband penetration is abysmally low in India (ranking 141/165). It will help improve internet penetration.
3. There are studies that confirm that giving access to a few sites make people make a move towards whole internet.
4. Zero Ratings is a legitimate business practice. Even FCC (US version of TRAI) has not banned it but said it will review zero rating platforms on case by case basis.
Rebuttal– There are no independent studies. All such studies are done by academics paid for by corporate. Founder of WWW Tim Lee opposes such practices.
Q. So what’s the way forward? How can broadband penetration be increased in India?
1. Use Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to give certain amount of free data to every consumer.
2. ISPs can give free data say 250MB one time free without creating walled gardens to get people on board.
3. Timely roll out of optical fibre and connection of all gram panchayats using Bharat Net project.
Q. So is this all about net neutrality?
1. No, discriminatory pricing is only a small but very important part of net neutrality.
2. Other aspects include no blocking, no throttling, no filtering, no slowing down, no fast lanes.
Net neutrality is a concept that says a public network should treat allcontent, sites, and platforms equally.
Q. What’s government doing about those aspects of net neutrality?
1. Govt. has promised on the floor of house to bring a comprehensive legislation covering all aspects of net neutrality.
2. In this regard govt needs to protect interest of teeming millions who are yet to connect to internet. Success of digital India mission will depend on this.
Remember ,The idea behind net neutrality is simple – treat all sites equally to give everyone a fair chance at growth, and reject the idea of monopolies.
PS– I would strongly suggest everyone to read the explainer and story on net neutrality from the links given below. After that, you don’t need to read anything extra on net neutrality for exam purpose.