In a major setback for Bharti Airtel, which had only last week unveiled ‘Airtel Zero’ an open, non-discriminatory platform for e-commerce players, on Tuesday saw one of the country’s largest online marketplace Flipkart rescinding from its earlier decision to join it.
Flipkart’s move comes amidst a raging debate on whether the platform violates the principles of net neutrality and is seen to insulate itself from bad publicity that it got in the cyberworld ever since its founder defended Airtel’s platform and showed inclination to join it. Flipkart’s CEO Sachin Bansal’s endorsement of the platform had led to users doling out one-star rating to its app on Google Play, which was seen as a major setback for the company that is reportedly considering a complete switch to an app-only platform.
The country’s largest mobile operator, Airtel, is itself under siege in the online space for allegedly violating the principles of net neutrality, something which it strongly denies. The company had last week told FE that apart from 100 start-ups, the country’s top four to five e-commerce players would sign with it, However, it now seems a distant hope.
According to Airtel, the platform was not violating net neutrality and was more in line with free toll service that would enable e-commerce players to launch their apps for download by consumers. Such downloads would not attract any charge by the consumers as the e-commerce firm would be paying for it.
This is the second time that Airtel is facing flak for violating net neutrality. Earlier this year, it had launched a differential tariff for surfing the net and making voice calls over the internet, which was later withdrawn.”We at Flipkart have always strongly believed in the concept of net neutrality, for we exist because of the Internet. Over the past few days, there has been a great amount of debate, both internally and externally, on the topic of zero rating, and we have a deeper understanding of the implications. After reviewing implications of zero rating deeply, we reached the conclusion that it doesn’t meet our standards of net neutrality and violates the principles that we stand for,” Flipkart said in a statement, confirming that curtains have been drawn on the discussions with Airtel.
Flipkart’s Bansal had earlier tweeted that zero rating of apps do not violate net neutrality, stoking consumer backlash. “I’m for #NetNeutrality. I spend time/money helping start-ups in India. Will never support things which suffocate innovation,” Bansal had recently tweeted. “0 rated apps for limited time doesn’t go against #NetNeutrality. Costs/competition are very high. Can’t be sustained for long. 0 rating only reduces data costs for users. Fears of a telecom big brother emerging are unfounded. Choice wins. Always,” he added.
Commenting on Flipkart’s decision not to join its platform, Bharti Airtel said, “The statement made by Flipkart regarding their decision not to offer toll free data service to their customers is consistent with our stand that Airtel Zero is not a tariff proposition. It is merely an open platform for content providers to provide toll free data services. The platform remains open to all companies who want to offer these toll free data services to their customers on a completely non-discriminatory basis.”
“Airtel fully supports the concept of net neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform — Airtel Zero. It is a not a tariff proposition but is an open marketing platform that, allows any application or content provider to offer their service on a toll free basis to their customers who are on our network. No site whether on the toll free platform or not under any circumstances is blocked, throttled or provided any form of preferential access,” it added.
The brouhaha over the whole issue has come at a time when a consultative process by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on whether to bring the over-the-top players under some sort of regulation is underway. On Monday, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also constituted a committee in the department of telecommunications on net neutrality, which would submit its report by the second week of May. There have been similar tie-ups by some other mobile operators also. For instance, the one between Facebook and Reliance Communications for Internet.org.
Reliance had announced in 2012 that it would offer free Facebook and WhatsApp for Rs 16 a month, without any additional data costs. The very next year, in 2013, they had announced a similar Twitter pack. The same year, Aircel had entered into a similar tie-up with Wikipedia.
Confirming it has no plans to join Airtel Zero, a Snapdeal spokesperson said, “We have no such plans at this point, especially given the regulatory framework is unclear.” Similarly, an Amazon spokesperson said the company follows a global policy of supporting net neutrality but declined to comment specifically on its India plans. “Amazon supports net neutrality—the fundamental openness of the Internet—which has been so beneficial to consumers and innovation,” the spokesperson said.Shopclues, which recently raised $100 million from Tiger Global, also said the company would stand for net neutrality.
“We as a brand completely support net neutrality in India. Consumers must be given the choice and freedom to access any website from any device they wish to. Net neutrality will also bring abundant enhancement to Indian start-up community, giving them equal opportunity among big players of the industry. By maintaining net neutrality, businesses of all sizes can earn huge benefits and ensure unbiased prospects,” Radhika Aggarwal, CMO, Shopclues told FE.