Column: Free, but basic – The net as a public good

Trai must unpick the analytics embedded in the arguments for and against Free Basics

Consider the following exchange between Sir Humphrey and Bernard Woolley in the BBC series Yes, Prime Minister, which one can effortlessly invoke to illustrate several knotty situations that involve decision making in the face of divergent opinions.

Sir Humphrey (SH): What, that silly Grand Design? Bernard, that was precisely what you had to avoid! How did this come about, I shall need a very good explanation.

Bernard Woolley (BW): Well, he’s very keen on it.

SH: What’s that got to do with it? Things don’t happen just because Prime Ministers are very keen on them! Neville Chamberlain was very keen on peace.

BW: He thinks … he thinks it’s a vote winner.

SH: Ah, that’s more serious. Sit down. What makes him think that?

Bernard Woolley: Well, the party have had an opinion poll done and it seems all the voters are in favour of bringing back National Service.

SH: Well, have another opinion poll done to show that they’re against bringing back National Service.

BW: They can’t be for and against!

SH: Oh, of course they can Bernard! Have you ever been surveyed? You know what happens: Nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously, you want to create a good impression, you don’t want to look a fool, do you?

BW: No.

SH: So, she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?

BW: Yes.

SH: Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

BW: Yes.

SH: Do you think there is lack of discipline in our Comprehensive Schools?

BW: Yes.

SH: Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?

BW: Yes.

SH: Do you think they respond to a challenge?

BW: Yes.

SH: Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?

BW: Oh well, I suppose I might.

SH: Yes or no?

BW: Yes.

SH: Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can’t say no to that. […] So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result.

BW: How?

SH: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?

BW: Yes.

SH: Are you worried about the growth of armaments?

BW: Yes.

SH: Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

BW: Yes.

SH: Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take arms against their will?

BW: Yes.

SH: Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

BW: Yes.

SH: There you are, you see, Bernard. The perfect balanced sample!

Now, consider the following exchange between two imaginary characters on the thorny issue of Net Neutrality.

Mr. India: Are you worried about the lack of Internet penetration in India?

NAMenon: Yes.

Mr. India: Do you feel we have lost an enormous amount of time in getting all Indians connected to the Internet?

NAMenon: Yes.

Mr. India: Do you think getting basic Internet for Indians starved of access is better than none at all?

NAMenon: Yes.

Mr. India: Do you think best is often the enemy of the good?

NAMenon: Yes.

Mr India: Would you support Facebook’s Basic Free Internet initiative?

NAMenon: Yes.

Now, consider another set of leading questions

Mr. India: Do you regard Internet as a public good that no one company should have disproportionate power to control? Is the Internet an asset that ought to be used for public good and not for private gain?

NAMenon: Yes to both.

Mr. India: Do you feel citizens have a right to choose what they wish to access without being restricted in any way?

NAMenon: Yes

Mr. India: Do you feel that innovation and start-ups will be hurt if the playing field is not level?

NAMenon: Yes

Mr. India: Would the phenomenal growth of content and applications such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc, have occurred if the Internet was not in a state of neutrality?

NAMenon: No

Mr. India: Would you support Facebook’s Basic Free Internet initiative?

NAMenon: No

Another perfectly balanced sample! Fortunately, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) chairman got it spot on when he said that when they sought responses to their consultation paper on discriminatory pricing, they were not conducting an “opinion poll”. Opinion however seems to be flying thick and fast in this space. Facebook has been nudging its 130 million Indian users to send emails to Trai to lend their voice to differential pricing. About 1.4 million obliged, many perhaps without much thought. Facebook might have been tempted to ‘rabble rouse’ since Trai’s earlier Consultation Paper on “Regulatory Framework for Over-the-Top services” in March 2015 had resulted in over 1.1 million e-mails supporting Net Neutrality being sent to Trai, courtesy of the website that had comedy troupe AIB join the chorus to “Save the Internet” in a video on YouTube.

The idea, that “where you stand depends on where you sit” might be criticised for its narrow view of preference formation. And yet that is how social preferences get formed. Which implies that Trai will have to unpick the analytics embedded in the two sets of the contrasting responses and then do some of its own. The key questions that will guide Trai recommendations in the policy-making exercise will be: (1) Who are the actors? (2) What factors influence each actor’s position? and (3) What is in the best interest of the sector and for realizing the ambitions of Digital India?

We now take it as given that Internet produces profound ‘network effects’, meaning that the value of the economic activity the infrastructure supports expands simultaneously and potentially non-linearly. In the US, President Barack Obama reminded regulators in August 2014 that net neutrality is essential to enable the next Google and the next Facebook to succeed. Facebook has itself publicly announced support for the principle. And for India not to embrace values of neutrality in the league of Internet nations might be a retrograde step.

Whenever and in whichever form the laws are enacted, these will almost surely exclude paid prioritisation and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services on the net (and rightly so). And if we take the assertion at ‘face’ value that Free Basics does not (or will not) violate net neutrality, the second order question that the regulator needs to assess is whether permission for such proposals will lead to other more damaging operator-service provider arrangements that limit competition and weaken innovation. If first-time access for many users to the Internet through ‘free’ basics is a short-term illusion that will lead to grave harm upon the Internet ecosystem and distort the very foundation of this open system, then indeed Free Basics should be disallowed. If not, the regulator may allow it to die a possible natural death in a vigorously competitive marketplace that punishes bad decisions. Remember, not so long ago, the social outrage against Airtel’s proposal to begin charging customers more for making voice calls from its network using ‘apps’ like Skype and Viber was nipped in the proverbial bud. It has never since raised its disagreeable head again.

The author is director and chief executive, ICRIER. Views are personal

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