As someone associated with the dawn and sunrise of the cellular revolution in India, I was enthused when the Narendra Modi government launched its Digital India initiative.
The internet was born and has grown and will continue to grow as a collaborative platform that has no owner and no gatekeeper. While countries like China and other authoritarian countries make efforts to gate-keep the internet, it’s a battle they’re doomed to fail because of the DNA of the internet. As the internet gets more global and gets smaller — embedded in smaller footprint devices including wearables — and innovation gets more disruptive and disruption becomes the new normal, policy challenges for regulators and governments are becoming more complex. Further complicating the mix are the twin issues of cyber security and privacy as the internet becomes the new haven for criminals and as consumer data and information reside in many databases all over the net.
In India, the internet is important also because it is transformative of the government and governance in a fundamental way. It connects citizens to the government in a way where no intermediation is required.
Digital India and the internet have been in the news in recent weeks. But for the wrong reasons. First, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, and now a huge consumer outcry on the issue of net neutrality. These events point to two things — that governments and regulators ignore consumers at their peril and that there is considerable policy work and reforms required before the vision of Digital India becomes a reality.
The removal of Section 66A was a positive development — not simply for the digital freedom of citizens, but also for Digital India. It seemed almost self-evident that the next steps taken by the government would be to create a suitably enabling policy framework to facilitate the technological transformation that Digital India would usher in. This would include the internet free from an intrusive government or private telco control and an internet that is easily accessible and affordable by all. Also an internet without any discrimination of access — a position referred to as net neutrality.
Net neutrality lies at the core of how consumers are able to access and use the internet — and is therefore crucial to the success of Digital India. I had raised this issue many times and had recently urged consumers to speak out and defend their rights to a neutral internet. In a country where consumer interest has been paid short shrift all this while, this has caught policy-makers and investors off guard. Consumer awareness is on the increase and that has become evident in this debate on net neutrality.
But the capability gaps in the institutions (DoT and TRAI) that are required to deliver on this vision of an open, fair and safe internet are becoming painfully clear. It has consistently under-delivered on its consumer and public interest mandate — a mandate for which it has powers under the TRAI Act. Shooting themselves in the foot with a 118-page consultation paper that was to reflect both sides of the issue, someone forgot to tell them to add the second side — and so it covers only a long litany of questions and complaints that seem to originate straight from big telcos, thereby shattering any illusion of independence that the regulator is supposed to live by.
There is no doubt telecom operators have a motivation to manage their network in a manner that maximises their business interests. Their investments are critical to developing national infrastructure on which the current and future internet can operate. As anyone even remotely associated with technology will realise, innovation and disruptive technologies are the new normal. What is expected of these telecom operators is to evolve and change their models as they are doing successfully as the numbers indicate. Instead, the move to seek regulatory protection or policy protection is not going to find a lot of support, least of all among consumers who are being asked to give up their right to experience innovation on the internet.
The move to have additional access charges for apps like WhatsApp and Skype, in addition to normal data rates, was a foolish move. It is unacceptable for the telecom operators to ask consumers to subsidise the costs of protecting their business model and of transformation to this new data-centric world. Instead, the government must look at incentivising further investments, if necessary, but not at the cost of the open and neutral character of the internet.
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, had in a compelling opinion piece this year, made the case that it was possible to assure the internet users a neutral internet ‘to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission’, while also encouraging investment in broadband networks.
The to do items on the government’s policy table are clear if they are to make Digital India a reality. They include: A new IT Act — the current act is seven years old and was passed without a debate in Parliament; the government needs to legislate and come out in favour of a neutral internet; given that technology is changing so fast, policies to address new trends of the internet of Things needs formulation; a new approach to Global internet Governance — India’s position currently is less aligned to technology and democratic nations and more with countries like China and Saudi Arabia; and transform the DoT and TRAI to move beyond licensing. Reform the licensing structures and make these institutions more innovation drivers and investment enablers.
The government’s decisions over the coming months will determine India’s digital footprint and roadmap for what consumers want — A free, open, safe and growing internet.
(Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a Member of Parliament and a technology entrepreneur
The views expressed by the author are personal)