Despite having backed net neutrality in the United States, Google hasn’t officially commented on the topic in India.
Which is why, when CEO Sundar Pichai outlined the company’s plans to bring a billion Indians online at an event in New Delhi, the question on the top of everyone’s mind was: If Google wants to get a billion Indians on the internet, does it plan to do it in a way that’s neutral?
“Oh, absolutely,” said Marian Croak, Google’s vice-president for access strategy and emerging markets. “It is not our intention that we should provide a walled garden to only use Google applications,” said Croak. “We want to provide you access so that you can access whatever you want.”
Croak, who is responsible for Google’s initiatives to expand internet access around the world with initiatives such as Project Loon, said Google’s mission was to provide “affordable, abundant access” using a portfolio of technologies that go beyond just WiFi.
In the United States, for instance, Croak is working on Google Fiber, which provides ultra high-speed gigabyte connections to select US cities, while in India, the company is bringing high-speed WiFi to hundreds of the country’s busiest railway stations in India by the end of 2016 through a program known as RailTel.
Gulzar Azad, Google’s head of access programs in India who is responsible for the RailTel project, said users would be free to access anything on the internet using this free WiFi service at railway stations and that there would be no zero-rating. “Data speeds will be reduced after an hour of usage, but users can still access anything on the internet,” Azad told HT.
Net neutrality has been a hot-button topic in India this year. The term essentially means this: on the internet, all data — whether it is a YouTube video or a WhatsApp message — is equal, and a service provider shouldn’t discriminate between different types of data by either slowing them down or providing selective access.
It’s a topic that has got Facebook, the world’s largest social network, in hot water in India thanks to Free Basics (formerly Internet.org), a program that provides free access to a Facebook-approved section of the internet. Critics have argued Free Basics violates net neutrality by splitting the internet into free and paid tiers.
Google has been tight-lipped about net neutrality in the country so far, but a report in the Economic Times published earlier this year said the company put a zero-rating plan in India on the back-burner, fearing a Facebook-like backlash.