The government is strictly on the fence about allowing non-discriminatory web access and its commitment to net neutrality is marred by vagueness and a lack of details – these were the key takeaways from a department of telecommunications report released on Wednesday.
Within hours of its release, the 111-page tome had managed to split media and activists over whether the document supported net neutrality, a concept that stipulates companies make all data accessible to everyone at the same possible speed and cost.
The report comes roughly three months after a viral social media campaign galvanised people on net neutrality, with over a million people mailing the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
Here are a few key points.
It doesn’t say what net neutrality is
The high-level committee recommended the following, triggering cheers from the media and news wesbites:
“User rights on the internet need to be ensured so that Telecom Service Providers/Internet Service Providers (TSPs/ISPs) do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, post any legal content, application or service on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use.”
But it shied away from defining what it understood by net neutrality
“The crux of the matter is that we need not hard code the definition of Net Neutrality but assimilate the core principles of Net Neutrality and shape the actions around them,” it says.
“The committee unhesitatingly recommends that ‘the core principles of net neutrality must be adhered to.’”
But what exactly are these core principles? The report doesn’t say. In fact, it contradicts itself later when it states “there is no standard definition of net neutrality.”
It’s supportive of over-the-top services like Skype and WhatsApp, which, it says, shouldn’t be regulated
The Committee recommends “over-the-top services” — what you and I commonly know as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, YouTube — should be actively encouraged.
The report says that such services “increase productivity” and “enhance consumer welfare”, so anything that hampers their growth should be removed. This sounds great, until…
...you reach the point about regulating internet voice calls
The committee also says voice calls within the country made using these services should be regulated by the same regulations that apply to standard voice calls.
Once again, this contradicts the point about adhering to the “core principles” of net neutrality, one of which states that all data on the internet — whether it is a voice call, a video, an image, or text — should be treated equally with no discrimination whatsoever.
It’s still on the fence about zero-rating
The Committee refuses to take a stand on zero-rating — an industry term for data that a consumer doesn’t pay for but is subsidised by a carrier or content provider.
Services like Airtel Zero, for instance, use zero-rating by allowing internet services like e-commerce websites and music streaming apps to pay Airtel.
Airtel customers can then access these services for free, without signing up for a data plan. Facebook’s Internet.org uses zero-rating to make access to certain websites free for people in developing countries.
Net neutrality advocates say that zero-rating fundamentally breaks the internet by splitting it into free and paid tiers. The telecom department’s report, on the other hand, says that zero-rating plans need to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
Companies that want zero-rating licenses would first need to submit a proposal to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which would examine if it conforms to the principles of net neutrality and is not anti-competitive — without, of course, saying what those principles specifically are.
A number of companies had walked out of the controversial Airtel Zero platform a few months ago as popular anger snowballed against companies allegedly violating net neutrality.
But it does call out Facebook’s Internet.org
The Committee explicitly names Facebook for its creation, Internet.org, and says that content and application providers (like Facebook) cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers, “even if it is for an ostensible public purpose.
This is bad news for Facebook, which has now expanded Internet.org to over 11 countries and hopes to be in over 100 by the end of the year.
The social media giant responded by releasing a statement saying that its role was to provide a “gateway” to low-cost internet access, and not a “gatekeeper”
It adds more red-tape to the mix
Here’s one of the last points in the Committee’s report:
“Enforcing net neutrality is a new idea and may throw up many questions and problems as we go along. For this purpose, an oversight process may be set up by the government to advise on policies and processes, review guidelines, reporting and auditing procedures and enforcement of rules.”
What does this mean? More bureaucracy, more processes, more debate, and more confusion. Good luck getting anyone to come to a consensus about just about anything.