If you thought the furore over net neutrality that's sweeping across India's cyberspace and print media is something that concerns only techies, think again. Even if you use just Whatsapp to stay in touch with family and friends, or Facebook to post pictures of your kids or cats, or Skype to see your grandchildren abroad, the outcome of this debate may affect the way you use the Internet and 'value-add' applications on your smartphone.
In a nutshell, net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISP) or Telecom Service Providers (TSP) must treat all Internet traffic on an equal basis. This should be irrespective of who the user is, what the content is, whether it's a website or an app and whether it’s accessed on a mobile, tablet, laptop or desktop. We should also be able to access everything with the same speed, and at the same cost.
This is more or less how we have been using the Internet in India till now, as India has no legislation or regulatory norms affecting Net Neutrality.
What is TRAI saying now?
Last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) brought out a 118-page Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services. According to TRAI, "the objective of this Consultation Paper (CP) is to analyse the implications of the growth of OTTs and consider whether or not changes are required in the current regulatory framework."
As per TRAI's list, examples of OTTs are Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Chat On, Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, Google Talk, Hike, Line, WeChat, Tango, ecommerce sites (Amazon, Flipkart etc.),Ola, Facebook messenger, Black Berry Messenger, iMessage, online video games and movies (Netflix, Pandora).
In India, such OTTs have been used free of cost so far. They are not bound by law in India by any licensing norms. Telecom service providers (TSPs) have been arguing that OTTs are using their networks for a free ride. Since some of the OTTs have been valued at billions of US dollars, telecom providers feel that they are entitled to share the spoils especially since they have invested heavily in infrastructure.
TRAI's consultation paper states, " Building networks will require substantial investments by the TSPs. With more users connecting to the Internet, the network of the TSP is under constant strain and there is the risk that the back-end server will reach its capacity very fast, thus compelling constant upgrades, the costs of which are to be borne exclusively or for the large part by the TSPs which build such networks."
Netizen activists say that this statement seems to echo telecom companies lobbying for their own interests.
According to TRAI, 83 percent of Indian Internet users access the net through a mobile phone. As on December 2014, WhatsApp topped the messaging application market in India with 52 percent of all the users using OTT messaging services, followed by Facebook Messenger with 42 percent, Skype with 37 percent and WeChat with 26 percent share. Viber stood at fifth spot with 18 percent share and Line stood at sixth position with a 12 percent.
The paper points out that WhatsApp’s subscriber base in India has risen to 70 million and it has a free subscription model, unlike in developed markets where the annual fee is $1.
"SMS messaging traffic fell from 5,346 million in June 2013 to 4,367 million in June 2014, a decline of 18.3 per cent. This decrease can be attributed almost entirely to an increase in traffic of OTT messaging apps. Premier telecom companies like Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular Limited have pointed to a significant drop in their messaging and value added services revenue as a part of the total revenues,” TRAI says.
Along with asking whether unregulated OTTs need regulation, TRAI's paper also examines a "solution" that could possibly see regulation of the Internet in India in such a way that the end user is charged for the network as well as for the content he or she accesses.
Netizen activists believe that app publishers and website owners will now have to pay the networks to carry their sites. Whoever pays the ISP/TSP more would benefit more, while economically weaker sites may "slow down" even more i.e speed wise. Our ISP or TSP will also decide which website or content app we can access and how much we would have to pay for that.
Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama, a digital and telecom portal, explains: "Different services may be free for different operators. Telecom operators could do exclusive deals with some sites, so some sites will be free only on one telecom operator, or available to those 200 million odd users from one telecom operator."
Netizen activists have cried foul at this, arguing that this crushes basic Internet freedom and makes the Internet a far less level playing field.
Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation explains how any kind of independent blocking on the part of ISPs or TSP on sites such as Whatsapp, to make people pay more money, amounts to censorship. "We need regulations protecting net neutrality. These should ensure uncensored access, effective and favourable competition and should protect the consumer from harm," he says.
Other campaigners are sceptical about the revenue loss scenario. They point out that increased data usage would translate into more revenues for the ISP/TSP. A drop in corporate profits, they argue, should be countered by innovation, not exorbitant over charging.
Reports of Airtel launching its new platform, Airtel Zero, which offered free access to certain select apps and services have deepened the outrage in many quarters. Adding fuel to the fire is Flipkart and Airtel's reported partnership for Airtel Zero, which offers access to Flipkart's mobile app free of data charges. Netizen activists have asked whether Flipkart, which rose to glory in the free Internet environment, could have done half as well in a net partial one.
Telecom companies, however, insist that there a lot of misunderstanding about net neutrality.
An Airtel press release says Airtel Zero is an "open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications at zero data charges akin to the established concept of toll-free voice calling...," and claims that "it will allow everyone from big marketers to small-time application developers to make parts or their entire mobile app free for customers."
Srini Gopalan, Director – Consumer Business, Bharti Airtel (India) described ‘Airtel Zero’ as "an open and non-discriminatory marketing platform for all developers in India – irrespective of the size of their business".
The Flipkart management has tweeted its support for net neutrality. In another report, medianama.com has quoted Flipkart as saying that "their activities in the past have been completely compliant with all laws including those formed by TRAI, and that they will continue to remain committed to that." ****
However, news reports say the government has decided to look at Airtel's controversial 'Airtel Zero' plan, and inspect it for any violation of net neutrality.
TRAI's consultation paper contains 20 questions addressed to telecom providers and the public, asking their views on the points addressed. April 24 has been identified as the deadline for comments, and May 8 for counter comments.
Websites such as Medianama, savetheinternet.com, reditt and change.org are trying to raise awareness and harness public opinion to protect Net Neutrality. Change.org's petition to ensure Net Neutrality has support from over 150,000 plus people.
Joining them are celebrities from Shah Rukh Khan to satirical group AIB; politician Ajay Maken to Odisha MP Tathagata Satpathy, who has sent a letter to TRAI; IT and communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad; IT standing committee chairman Anurag Thakur along with all Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members. All of them stating that violation of net neutrality is a threat to his functioning as a representative.
International opinion, too, is veering towards the protection of net neutrality. US President Barack Obama has openly endorsed it, while other countries such as Chile and the Netherlands have also framed legislation protecting it.
According to TRAI, mobile internet penetration in India is only around 20 percent, that too predominantly on 2G. But the Internet has touched everyday life hugely, and TRAI's final decision will impact the country immensely, perhaps more than most of us realise.
**** POST SCRIPT: Shortly after this article was first published, Flipkart announced its intention to pull out of its deal with Airtel Zero, with a renewed commitment to the cause of net neutrality. Flipkart co-founder and CEO Sachin Bansal had drawn a lot of flak from consumers over his statement that zero-rated apps don't go against net neutrality.