As per the telecom regulator’s final Recommendations, The principles of net neutrality don’t apply to restricted services such as IPTV and video-on-demand.
By Subho Ray
Much to the relief of internet start-ups, internet users and internet activists, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has finally come out with its recommendations on net neutrality—after a long-drawn consultation process, one that lasted over two years. Momentarily, some of us were concerned that the winds blowing from the US would cloud the issue in India too. But, Trai deserves full credit; its recommendations are near-perfect. Little doubt, therefore, among certain sections there is a sense of joy at the smell of a victory. The organisation that I represent had some contribution in determining the direction that the recommendations have taken; and the recommendations give us enough and more reasons to celebrate. Critics with extreme views will say that this is no victory at all. That this is just a set of recommendations to the government and not binding at all. There could be much truth in this assertion. We are all aware of the many slips between the cup and the lip, and the law may take a course quite different from the recommendations. However, the point to note here is that even as a transient victory, this is helpful. It is exactly the kind of victory that will help draw the fence-sitters to one’s side. A signal from a powerful regulator is always taken seriously by policy-makers. These concerns, though, take nothing away from the commendable work done by Trai on defining the stand on net neutrality.
The set of recommendations lay down the basic principles of net neutrality more lucidly than attempted anywhere in the world so far. It also clearly suggests the changes needed in existing laws; the telecom licence condition needs to be changed if net neutrality is to work in India. There were three sides to the debate on net neutrality—the ISPs, the internet content providers, and finally, the end-users of internet services. Trai has taken special care to ensure that the interests of the customers/end-users are best served in its recommendations. Trai has, in unambiguous terms, said, “Internet access services should be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content” [emphasis added]. This helps set the paradigm for all future conversations on net neutrality in India, and will be the stepping stone for any regulatory framework that is eventually developed.
The second positive highlight is the process by which Trai arrived at these recommendations. Over the last two years, true to its tradition, Trai has systematically engaged in a consultative process with all stakeholders on the matter. This included a series of pre-consultation and consultation papers and open house discussions in multiple cities; the regulator listened to all the stakeholders carefully, consulted experts and looked at international best practices to separate the wheat from the chaff, applying its judgement to make the final recommendations. The process of arriving at these recommendations reflects the best possible route to collective decision-making in a democratic set-up, and it is no wonder that the final document is receiving such positive response given it manages to reflect the mood of the majority of internet users. Trai has set a template for policy framing for other regulators follow.
True, the recommendations and the Trai process doesn’t end the debate conclusively. Carving out exceptions such as “specialised services”, “reasonable traffic management” and making special provisions for CDNs do leave behind room for misinterpretations and lacunae. It should also be remembered that the previous Trai ruling on “differential pricing”, currently the only shield available against potential violators of net neutrality, has a sunset clause of two years. In case the new law is not made in the next two years, the shield will be completely off. ISPs, especially the telecom operators, are visibly unhappy about the recommendations. They have been so since the very beginning of this debate. Sophisticated technical, free-market, economic and sentimental arguments have been made to scuttle the entire process. All those arguments have been heard and countered. I offer two arguments to convince them of two things: First, the recommendations are good for them as well.
As I had mentioned earlier, the recommendations are balanced and reading between the lines offers an opportunity for the telcos. For example, according to the recommendations, the principles of net neutrality do not apply to restricted services such as IPTV and video on demand. In such cases, there is an opportunity for “paid prioritisation” without compromising current user experience. Secondly, globally, the dice is heavily loaded against telcos. Top 20 internet companies probably have more valuation/market cap than all the telcos combined. If the trend continues, without the strong cover of net neutrality, telcos may be reduced to mere vendors for some of the larger internet companies. It is therefore time for telcos to follow the China Mobile model, concentrate on data and internet use and aspire to be the largest telecom operator in the world. Given the progressive and very inclusive recommendations that the Trai has published, it is time all stakeholders joined hands and approached the government to make the necessary changes in the law and carry out the recommendations in letter and spirit.