Amid massive online protests to maintain unhindered access to the internet for all, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Monday hinted that the government was in support of net neutrality .
However, a final call would be taken after a ministry committee submits its report in the second week of May, he said.
“The internet is one of the finest creations of the human mind. To become global, it must have an integral link to local. I am equally proud of the great role young people have played in the field of net expansion. There must be non-discrimination and digital inclusion,” Prasad told HT.
A citizen campaign to uphold net neutrality (see graphic) in India has taken the web by storm with over 200,000 people — including filmstars and politicians — writing to the country’s telecom regulator, which has come out with a consultation paper ahead of formulating guidelines on the matter.
Activists say net neutrality — an idea that stipulates that companies treat all data as equal so that it is accessible to everyone at the same possible speed and cost — is crucial to keeping the internet a level-playing field and encouraging innovation.
Prasad, however, refused to spell out the government’s stand and said the ministry has already formed a committee that would consult all stakeholders before submitting its report. “The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is also considering it. We respect its advisory. We will take a call after we receive the committee report,” he said.
Official sources said the government is conscious of the support for the issue by netizens after certain firms argued that they should be allowed to charge more for certain applications and services.
Activists say such a move would effectively tilt the balance in favour of the bigger players and potentially stifle innovation and growth of start-ups.
In the run up to the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP successfully mobilised people through social media and the ruling party doesn’t want to “let down” its supporters by compromising on net neutrality, sources said. The opposition Congress has also jumped into the debate as it sees an opportunity to wean the “internet generation” away from the BJP.
The debate follows a similar one in the US, where the federal communications commission approved internet rules that prevented broadband providers from separating online traffic into slow and fast lanes.
Prasad has called for an internal report on net neutrality by the second week of May. “I expect a comprehensive report from an internal committee (in the department of telecommunications) that I had set up in January… net neutrality is still evolving, this report will examine all issues concerned.”
Trai is also scheduled to come out with its recommendations after April 24, the last date for stakeholders to send their inputs on the issue. A senior communications ministry official said, “As per the Trai Act, the government holds the final decision to accept or reject, partially or in total, the Trai report… it is not binding on the government.”
Responding to a question if the issue could reach the courts, with telecom operators differing on the definition of net neutrality, Prasad said, “I cannot stop anyone from going to court.”
Legal eagles foresee a judicial solution to the issue of net neutrality, followed by legislative execution. “The telecom regulator can only recommend. The IT Act does not mention anything on net neutrality, the telecom policy on it is ambiguous and there is social concern. The issue is bound to go to courts,” said Pawan Duggal, a leading Supreme Court lawyer who specialises in IT.
Telcos have their own argument against the concept. “Will net neutrality imply all devices must be standardised and offered at the same price to make the net neutral?...There are multiple mobile technologies – 2G, 3G, 4G — to access internet. Should all speed and pricing be the same in the garb of net neutrality?” asked Srinivasan Gopalan, director, consumer business, Bharti Airtel.