Net Neutrality

Are we missing the real debate on the internet?

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) passed a significant order upholding the sanctity of net neutrality. That has been one of the keenly debated topics the world over and the TRAI has made its stand clear. The internet will remain neutral and any discrimination by the service provider based on content is not permitted.

Why net neutrality matters?

The debate over net neutrality first arose when Airtel launched its Airtel Zero followed by Facebook Free Basics launched jointly with RCOM. Both were essentially meant to expand the internet base but also took upon itself the job of regulating the content that people will have access to. That is where the problem arose. The internet, by default, is a democratic medium and cannot be monopolized by a few content and service providers. That is like you have access to the net at a very cheap rate but then your service provider literally decides what you will be able to access on the internet. This opens up a huge opportunity for the service providers where they will be able to better monetize their properties by virtually deciding who accesses what and at what time. Both the Airtel Zero plan and the Facebook Free Basics had to be dropped precisely for this reason. With the TRAI ruling, any such discrimination based on content is out. Also, the penalties are stringent enough to literally dissuade any defaulters.

Reading the fine print

The telecom industry has been broadly negative on this ruling and that is hardly surprising. The telecom sector, which is severely stressed, was looking to monopolize net access to create new revenue streams and this order rules out such actions. However, there are loopholes if you read the fine print. The net neutrality order only pertains to discrimination based on access to content. So if the entire plan can be packaged in such a way as to appear as a discrimination on another parameter, it can still sail through. There will be a great element of discretion and one can even look forward to a spate of legal rulings and counter-rulings in this light!

What about content plans?

India still does not have the breadth and sophistication that it can really offer any meaningful discrimination based on content. For now, the focus is more on offering as much of data free as possible just to stay in business. The TRAI has already ruled that an across-the-board reduction in prices for a short period of time will not attract net neutrality considerations. But what could happen is that the convergence of data, content, and access is likely to take longer than originally anticipated? Content can no longer be used to discriminate customers and the focus will now be more on price than user experience. That is a step backward! ©

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