When powerful lobbies fight to influence you, the task can be daunting. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in ruling against differential pricing of Internet access, has scotched Facebook’s ambitious Free Basics programme because it involves partnerships with telecom service providers and app providers that may encourage unfair competition.
The TRAI has elaborately explained why it did so. Here, in plain language, are five rules that can help you understand what went inside the head of the regulator.
1.The Internet is a public good: While you pay private companies such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone or Aircel to get access to the Internet, in principle, it is an information superhighway that involves government supervision and control for the benefit of all. Academic institutions, non-profits and governments have helped in creating TCP/IP and World Wide Web standards and provision of spectrum that form the basic ingredients of the Internet.
2.Telcos are quasi-public organizations: When a telecom service provider gets spectrum from the government, it is like a tenant, not an owner. Just as a tenant can alter the furniture of a house but not break a floor, the government-appointed regulator, like a landlord, has a say in determining how spectrum is to be used.
3.Collusion is not collaboration: When some content providers or social networks partner with a telecom service provider, they form a club of sorts. When this club becomes a front-running elite, it gives them a headstart and precludes others from equal participation and fair competition. This is a bit like a hotel partnering the local government that controls traffic movement in such away that visitors first come to the partner hotel.
4.Data is money: When a programme like Free Basics accesses user data, Facebook is potentially sitting on advertising money. Its rivals (say, Google or InMobi), would not like to share a platform controlled by Facebook. But staying out will mean Facebook will have easy access to millions of new users. That hurts fair competition.
5.Dubious bundling lacks transparency: Free Basics and Airtel Zero involve partnerships that have a mix of public interest and private interest. Imagine a pizza delivery company partnering with a hospital’s ambulance services. Ambulances have right of way in roads in the public interest. Suppose the ambulance van carries pizzas alongside medicines, it provides an unfair advantage to the pizza company with respect to a rival pizza brand. Free data service is like a medicine while giving user data and preferential access to some apps is like a pizza.