Net neutrality wins first round: Flipkart walks out on Airtel Zero

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 15, 2015 01:46 IST

E-commerce giant Flipkart decided on Tuesday to walk out of an agreement with telecom operator Airtel that activists alleged violated the open and neutral nature of the internet, boosting a viral social media campaign for non-discriminatory web access.

Widespread online anger against Flipkart appeared to have forced the company to reverse its earlier stand and say it strongly believed in net neutrality , a concept that stipulates companies make all data accessible to everyone at the same possible speed and cost.

“We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero… to the larger cause of net neutrality in India. We exist because of the internet,” a Flipkart statement said.

The controversial platform would have given customers access to Flipkart at zero data charge and proposed to let users access certain apps and websites for free as long as their makers paid Airtel.

This model – called zero rating – generated a tremendous amount of debate as activists argued it violated net neutrality and was inimical to equal treatment of all online traffic, crucial to keeping the internet a level-playing field.

Flipkart said it decided to walk out as it had a deeper understanding of the implications and would internally discuss future strategy for promoting net neutrality.

The controversy over Airtel Zero and a subsequent consultation paper circulated by India’s telecom regulator has galvanised people on net neutrality, with over 300,000 people mailing the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in the last four days, before the body formulates guidelines on the matter. The last date for sending comments to TRAI on this issue is April 24.

A large part of the snowballing anger has been directed against companies such as Flipkart, with consumers down-voting the firm’s app online after CEO Sachin Bansal tweeted in favour of Airtel Zero. The campaigners want policy makers to not allow telecom companies to charge extra fees for web services or provide preferential access to certain apps.

Airtel, however, said it wasn’t opposed to net neutrality and no site, whether on the toll-free platform or not, was blocked, throttled or provided any form of preferential access.

“Airtel fully supports the concept of net neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform- Airtel Zero,” the firm said in a statement.

Airtel Zero wasn’t a tariff proposition but an open-marketing platform that allowed any application or content provider to offer their service on a toll-free basis to customers on its network, the operator said.

These users, whether on a data pack or not, would be able to access the toll-free services free of charge and the platform was open to all content providers on a completely non-discriminatory basis and operates on the same principle as 1-800 toll-free voice services, the telecom operator said.

“The statement of Flipkart is consistent with our stand on Airtel Zero… to offer the toll free data services to their customers on a completely non-discriminatory basis,” stated Airtel.

A government-appointed panel is looking into these concerns and is likely to submit its report in the second week of May but telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has already indicated his support for net neutrality.

“The internet is one of the finest creations of the human mind. I am equally proud of the great role young people have played in the field of net expansion. We must give them due respect. There must be non-discrimination and digital inclusion,” Prasad told HT on Monday. The campaign has also been backed by the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

The debate was first ignited in the United States, where the federal communications commission delivered a landmark judgment earlier this year, preventing broadband providers from separating online traffic into slow and fast lanes.

View | Are we moving towards splitting the Internet further?

Counter view | India needs a shift in thinking from net neutrality to net opportunity

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