Within hours of demanding to bring the net neutrality debate into the Parliament, Rahul Gandhi attacked PM Narendra Modi govt in the Lok Sabha and accused it of trying to carve out the digital space and hand it over to corporates groups, depriving the rest of the population of opportunities available there.
Raising the issue during Zero Hour in Lok Sabha, Gandhi said the government “wants to distribute internet among industrialists. Every youth should have access to internet…. This government wants to carve out the internet and hand it over to some corporates.”
Following up on his accusation, Rahul Gandhi made a demand for an amendment or a new law to ensure net neutrality.
This caused an uproar with the ruling party MPs protesting vehemently, saying the Congress vice president was just scoring political points and that the truth was far from that. They looked to underline the fact that the Narendra Modi government has always stood for an Internet space that provides equal access to all. The BJP MPs said the digital initiatives of PM Modi have all been designed to get the poorest people on the net to avail jobs and other opportunities there to improve their lives.
Later on, talking to reporters outside Parliament, Rahul Gandhi linked the issue of net neutrality with NDA’s land acquisition law alleging that after land, the government is now trying to hand over Internet to the industrialists at the cost of youths.
“This government, which belongs to the corporates and the industrialists is snatching land from farmers, labourers and tribals. I am fighting for that. Congress is fighting for that. I had thought that since the Internet users, the youths had supported Modiji, he will protect their Internet (rights).
“But what is happening is that as land is being snatched, so is Internet. Internet is also being snatched…the idea behind this is hand over the net space to corporates and companies, distribute it among them,” he said.
In an effort to reach out to youths, Gandhi said, “Youths will feel its impact. Youths will stand to lose. There will be a blow to the voice that they raise, the expressions that they make”.
He said the government did not reply in the House to this very question as to why the consultation process on neutrality was started when it intended to protect it.
Making a strong pitch for net neutrality, the Congress Vice President said every person should have access to the net.
He charged that the government stated in a “circumlocutory” manner that it will protect net neutrality and did not allow him to ask another question, which could have taken just five seconds.
Rahul Gandhi had earlier begun his speech in the House by making a sarcastic reference to US President Barack Obama’s write-up on Modi in a prominent US magazine.
Observing that Obama had written a long piece praising Modi, he said no US President had spoken so highly of an Indian Prime Minister and the praise was similar to the one made by the then US President for the erstwhile USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, under whom the country had disintegrated.
Rushing to deny any political space on the issue to Rahul Gandhi, the government today said it is committed to equal access to Internet for all and will ensure its “non-discriminatory availability”.
“As far as the issue of net neutrality is concerned, for Internet expansion in India, the young people of the country have done a commendable job and my government will strive to ensure a non-discriminatory availability of Internet for the people of India, particularly the young people,” Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters here.
Prasad said the BJP government stood for ‘digital India’ and the internet was available to people in a “non-discriminatory” manner.
“Government wants to assure Parliament… Prime Minister speaks of digital India so that 125 cr people have the internet,” he said.
Playing down the TRAI consultation paper in this regard which has sparked a debate over net-neutrality, he said the regulatory body was doing it under the Act governing the issue, but it was “for me and the government to take a final call on the issue.”
Net neutrality calls for equal treatment to all Internet traffic with no priority given to an entity or company based on payment to service providers such as telecom companies, which is seen as discriminatory.
A major public uproar has been continuing for last few days in the country, especially on social media, alleging violation of net neutrality principle by platforms like Airtel Zero and Internet.org, where Facebook has partnered with Reliance Communications in India.
“I want to assure the people of India, the Prime Minister himself is a great supporter of the profound activism of Indian young people on social media and the great role they are playing,” the Minister said.
He added: “It is a sensitive issue on which we need to take a proper, informed decision. The larger commitment of my government, on which I am very active is, we need to strive for a non-discriminatory Internet availability.”
“Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is also doing its own consultation process. Trai’s reports will be considered by the Telecom Commission and then the government will take the final call,” Prasad said.
According to the Minister, Internet is the finest creation of human mind, but in order to become truly global, it must have linkage with the local.
“Way back in January 2015 itself, I had constituted a committee of five officers of my department to give me a report on the entire gamut of net neutrality. I have asked them to give me a report by the second week of May. I am awaiting that,” the Minister said.
Launched earlier this month, Airtel Zero is an open-marketing platform that allows customers to access certain mobile apps for free with charges being borne by the app makers.
Many free Internet advocates and start-ups feel that Airtel’s platform could even “lead to monopolisation by a few and squeeze out the small companies”.
Airtel has defended its move saying the initiative would be a ‘win-win’ for customers and marketers alike.
Earlier in the day, raising the issue of net neutrality, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi had sought suspension of Question Hour in Lok Sabha and gave a notice for an adjournment motion to discuss the matter immediately.
An adjournment motion involves an element of censure against the Government. However, it is up to the Speaker to decide on taking up the motion.
A strong plea was made yesterday in the Lower House for ensuring net neutrality with demands that the recent consultation paper brought out by TRAI should be scrapped and attempts by certain telecom and internet service providers be scuttled.
Raising the issue during Zero Hour, M B Rajesh (CPI-M) had alleged that the consultation paper brought out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India was “blatantly supporting” assault on net neutrality by telecom and internet service providers.
Several opposition members wanted to have their say on the issue.
Speaker Sumitra Mahajan had said a notice should be given for a half-an-hour discussion and she would allow it.