Net neutrality


The continued struggle for providing free access to the Internet to all users going on from the activists, who believe in keeping the monopoly of some Information Technology (IT) companies at bay, got a boost from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) four years back. This is a welcome shot in the arm for those advocating free access to Internet all over the world so that all the citizens can benefit from the technological advancement. The TRAI has finally come out with clear guidelines in favour of Internet neutrality which are consistent with its earlier stand on Facebook’s Free Basics proposal. After consultation papers issued in May 2016 and January 2017, the regulator reiterated that there cannot be discriminatory treatment of websites on the Internet by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In fact, the guidelines also provide some relief to the users in terms of free access to many web sites which are out of their reach due to the whimsical behaviour of the ISPs. TRAI has also warned providers against the practice of blocking certain websites and tinkering with content speeds. This, in clear terms, means that ISPs such as telecom companies cannot stand in the way of a consumer’s access to content that would otherwise be provided to them without any undue hindrance. The IT companies cannot, for instance, charge consumers for access to certain content, or receive payment from websites promising greater promotion of their product over the rest. It is quite notable that TRAI’s decision comes in the wake of international focus on the US Federal Communications Commission’s decision to scrap regulations on service providers imposed during the Obama administration four years back. Some of these regulations were prompted by the IT companies which wanted a monopoly in the market so that they could control their clients in a different way and force the consumers to pay for the facilities provided by them. There has been a demand from the users and activists for a review of all the decisions of the US commission keeping in view the rights of the citizens for free access to Internet. While batting for the right to an open Internet, however, TRAI has been careful to allow some exceptions that allow companies to discriminate between content if it helps them regulate the flow of traffic or offer ‘specialized services’. Apart from this, there is no doubt that TRAI’s new guidelines will help the cause of building the Internet as a public platform with an open access to all, the concerns of service providers should not be dismissed altogether. The Internet has spread all over the world, so widely that many believe it is now an essential service. But the infrastructure that serves as the backbone of the Internet has not come without huge investments by private service providers. So any regulation that severely restricts the ability of companies to earn sufficient returns on investment will only come at the cost of the welfare of the public. In this connection, TRAI has been open to adopting a calibrated view that differentiates between various forms of content instead of imposing a blanket ban on all forms of price differentiation. The new policy, for instance, will still allow companies to justify the costs incurred in providing reliable content to consumers. At the same time, TRAI’s measured response is likely to effectively address the problem of anti-competitive practices adopted by certain ISPs. Already, India is witnessing a cut throat competition among the telecommunication companies providing mobile network services at cheaper rates with limited access to data on the Internet. It is interesting, it has left it, with important caveats, to the government to decide on services that count as ‘specialized’ and deserve exceptional treatment by the regulators. To this end, a proper mechanism needs to be instituted to make sure that the exceptions are not used as loopholes by the big Internet players and encroach upon or gobble up the share of the smaller companies. The policymakers will also need to think about creating an appropriate legal framework to prevent the capture of regulation by special interests. Besides this, the policymakers also need to make a comprehensive review of the facilities being provided by the companies in the hinterland, where people are being forced to pay for no services.