The quest for Net neutrality in India has snowballed into a major issue of late, with proponents slamming initiatives like Airtel Zero and Internet.org. The outrage has prompted a number of marquee partners like Flipkart, ClearTrip, NDTV and NewsHunt to pull out of such platforms, while many more are likely to follow suit. Even Times Group has decided to pull out its properties like Maharashtra Times and TimesJobs of Internet.org.
Net neutrality, a term coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu a decade ago, propagates that Internet service providers and the governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, without charging differentially by content, site, application etc, an idea that Airtel Zero and Internet.org allegedly violates.
Through Airtel Zero, the telecom service provider would deliver free access to select applications against a fee, to be paid by the respective app developers or companies, through marketing tie-ups. Internet.org, a Facebook initiative launched in 2013, also violates Net neutrality, claims harbingers of the concept. Facebook launched the service along with seven mobile phone and services companies—Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Microsoft, Opera Software, Reliance Communications and Qualcomm—with the goal of providing affordable Internet access.
In India, Internet.org was launched in a partnership between Reliance Communications and Facebook. To get access to this system, a user should be a customer of Reliance Communications and is entitled to free access to around 40 websites. However, any Internet user who browses outside the designated free websites of Internet.org will have to pay charges according to the data plans of Reliance Communications, which allegedly violates Net neutrality.
“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.
Cleartrip CMO Subramanya Sharma wrote on the company’s official blog that the recent debate around Net neutrality prompted the company to rethink its approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast.
“What started off with providing a simple search service is now concerned with influencing customer decision-making by forcing options on them, something that is against our core DNA…so while our original intent was noble, it is impossible to pretend there is no conflict of interest (both real and perceived) in our decision to be a participant in Internet.org. In light of this, Cleartrip has withdrawn our association with
and participation in Internet.org entirely,” Sharma wrote.
Several start-ups have also raised their voices against zero rating.
According to several industry observers, zero rating may put start-ups with a limited funds at a disadvantage as they might have to pay the distributors or telcos to offer their apps on the platform. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which recently floated a consultation paper on regulating over the top service providers like WhatsApp and Skype, has reportedly so far received a petition signed by 1.59 lakh people and close to 1.5 lakh individual emails, supporting Net neutrality.
Among the 20 questions raised by Trai were whether OTT services providers like WhatsApp, WeChat and hike should pay for using the telcos’ networks, on top of data charges already being paid by consumers. It also pointed out whether telcos should be allowed to implement non-price based discrimination of services. The final date for user comments is April 24 and counter comments May 8.
Among a few volunteers to have taken up the cudgels is Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder, Hasgeek, who voluntarily started savetheinternet.in to spread the word and awareness on Net neutrality. The website has simplifid the Trai paper on OTT. With the help of a few lawyers it has made a template answer to 20 questions which Trai has asked people for their responses on. “As of now we have received 3.4 lakh emails that we were copied on. The actual number that have been sent will be higher since an unknown number may have chosen to not copy us and several emails are still in transit due to overloaded email servers,” he said.
The start-up community also chimed in. “I believe that Net neutrality is extremely important for ensuring unbiased access to the Internet. What might look like a harmless incursion today (like Airtel Zero) would end up having very profound ramifications a few years down the line. Airtel launched the initiative with the right intention but perhaps did not see the consequences very clearly. While their initiative will definitely benefit some start-ups, that is exactly the problem. Internet allowed everyone free and equal access, which Airtel Zero will alter,” said said Ankur Singla, CEO, Akosha, a forum that facilitates consumer complaint.
This is the second time that Airtel is facing flak for allegedly violating neutrality. In December last year, the company had launched a differential plan for surfing the Internet and making voice calls over the Internet, but soon withdrew following a consumer backlash. While the telcos contend that the OTT model is eating into their revenue, the OTT service providers say their services like messaging or calls are offered through internet services provided by the telcos, for which the latter charges the end users. For Airtel, value-added service revenue reportedly dipped from R1,025 crore in Q3 Fy13 toR781 crore in Q3 FY15, even as its data revenue increased three-folds from R586 crore to R2,108 crore during the same time.
“Currently, the law as it stands is silent on Net neutrality, which is why ISPs are trying to take advantage and come out with different plans that violate Net neutrality. Hence the Trai and DoT consultation papers. Interestingly, the IT Act already provides for exceptions where Net neutrality could be violated by ISP, pornography is one such example. However, violation of Net neutrality for the commercial benefit of few is a different issue altogether,” said Antony Alex, CEO, MyLaw.net.
He also raised some concerns over breach of some anti-trust laws. “One critical aspect of violating Net neutrality is with respect to breach of anti-trust laws. Abuse of dominant position by ISPs leading to customers being adversely impacted, could be viewed as breaching the Competition Act. Plans similar to Airtel’s Zero plan could potentially fall afoul of the Competition Act. This issue is a complex one and requires a lot more research and thought. The government would be well-advised to think this through carefully as it has also free speech and privacy implications,” he added.