Net neutrality: India’s telecom regulator takes the right call
The Internet isn’t a highway or a railway line because these are always owned (by the government, or by private bodies). And anyone can do anything on it as long as it doesn’t affect the ability of anybody else to do the sameeditorials Updated: Nov 30, 2017 12:15 IST
It will be tough to find a more unequivocal comment in favour of net neutrality than the one made by India’s telecom regulator RS Sharma on November 28. “Nobody owns the Internet. And, therefore, it is everybody’s property... and, therefore, it should be open and accessible to everybody,” the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said.
Mr Sharma’s comments are telling, not just because they represent the support of the world’s largest parliamentary democracy — one assumes that the smart former bureaucrat that he is, Mr Sharma’s view echoes the government’s — in efforts to protect what is indubitably the world’s last free frontier, the Internet.
Indeed, the question that Mr Sharma answered on ownership lies at the root of the confusion in certain quarters about net neutrality. Some economists, for instance, admit they don’t “get net neutrality”. As Richard H Thaler, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, who is considered the father of behavioural economics, said in a 2014 tweet: “Don’t get net neutrality. Shouldn’t a 16-wheeler pay a higher toll than a Mini? Isn’t it just a congestion tax? What am I missing?”.
There are many ways to answer Mr Thaler, but one of the best answers can be found in the 2002 paper in which Tim Wu first spoke of the concept of net neutrality in the context of home broadband. The principle, he explained “would forbid broadband operators, absent showing of harm, from restricting what users do with their internet connections, while giving the operator general freedom to manage bandwidth consumption.” In the same note, Mr Wu cites a 1956 ruling by a Washington court in a case regarding telephony “…the consumer has a right reasonably to use his (connection) in ways which are privately beneficial without being publicly detrimental”.
In effect, the Internet isn’t a highway (or a super-highway) or a railway line because these are always owned (by the government, or by private bodies). And anyone can do anything on it as long as it doesn’t affect the ability of anybody else to do the same.
The issue, though, is one of balance. In the United States, for instance, there are efforts on to repeal existing net neutrality rules — Mr Wu thinks the repeal will not stand judicial scrutiny — on the grounds that they are inhibiting investments by Internet companies in infrastructure. A subsidiary argument is that there was no major instance of an Internet service provider displaying so-called preferential or discriminatory behaviour before the rules were introduced in 2015. Neither of these is a strong argument.
Net neutrality may have other economic consequences. For instance, it is entirely possible that telecom companies increase their prices to combat what they see as revenue losses arising from customers using so-called Over-The-Top apps to make and receive calls. These, though, are easy issues to resolve — anti-competition bodies and the regulator itself have enough ammunition to deal with these.
The freedom of the Internet, though, is a larger issue, and on that, it is heartening to see India’s regulator take the right call.