Net Neutrality – The Concept and its Importance in the Indian Context

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SYAM (an imaginary Indian Character) read the news about the recent NET NEUTRALITY Debate in India and seeing his anger his friend Ram became curious about what this is all about.

Ram: What is net neutrality?
Syam: The term implies that all traffic on the Internet has to be treated equally by ISPs (Internet Service Providers). This is why today we pay for only the data that we consume and not pay for how we choose to use it.

Ram: What's the fuss about?
Syam: Operators worldwide have been lobbying the governments and regulatory regimes to let them decide the tariffs and cost for the various data services that is being transmitted on their networks. The reasons they cite are the huge amounts of investments incurred in setting up the networks that carry this data and hence want to have a piece of the revenue that the internet firms generate.

Ram: How is my country (India) affected?
Syam: COAI (Cellular operators association of India - the lobbying arm of Indian GSM technology companies) have been pressurizing the Indian government to make IM (Instant Messaging Apps) and OTTs (Over the top operators like Whatsapp, Nimbuzz etc.) to be regulated so that users can be charged separately for these services even if they have paid for the data packs.
Eg. You recharged Rs. 252 for a 1GB data pack. Till now you could use this data to do anything on the internet. If this request by Telcos gets through your telecom operator would dictate what, how and when to browse the internet. Seems scary!!! Read on...

Ram: Why should I be concerned? I don't use these meaningless apps anyways?
Syam: The idea to make each and every service on internet chargeable was mooted in 2013 at the MWC (Mobile world congress) by one of the leading operators of India.

What Bharti's Sunil Mittal suggested at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last year, and is gaining rapid popularity with service providers around the world, was an “interconnect charge”, an effective Internet tax that would force companies such as Google and Facebook to pay network operators a levy similar to the termination fee that networks pay one another to complete a voice call.

This growing clamor for an Internet tax was obliquely backed by the Government at a U.N conference, held last month.

Internet Tax-The HINDU

If they have their way, Internet A-la-carte could become a reality18012015_10:25:31

On the 24th of December 2014, Airtel in a drastic move included a clause on its data pack recharges which stated

"All VOIP CALLS over data connectivity like Skype and Viber will be charged at standard data rates of 4p / 10 KB ( 3G service) and 10p / 10 KB (2G service) "

This was later withdrawn since they were largely successful in forcing TRAI to announce work on a consultation paper to discuss on regulating OTTs and ensure a level playing field.

The gullible Ram said:

Ram: Huh! Well there's the Government and TRAI to intervene. Won't they rule in our Favour
Syam: I was of the same view but stunned by the response of the TRAI chief who said the following

“Let’s be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot say the move is illegal today as there is no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator.If the telecom players fall under a set of rules, then should not the OTT players be also brought under some kind of rules? Otherwise there would be a non-level playing field”

He also went on to say later that our net - neutrality can be different from other countries as our socio economic conditions are different which is a sweet way of saying that "TRAI doesn't think for us".

Well picture this. At the time of independence India too had a much different society.But still our founding fathers had the vision and the courage to include  "freedom of speech" as a fundamental right for all Indian citizens.Had they too thought like the TRAI chief and gone ahead with anything less we would have seen the same mayhem we see in some parts of the world.

The Govt said the following but since then I can/cannot hear is their silence - “We will look into it. Government will come back with structured response” Dec -2014.

So it's now just the people and civil society against the powerful telecom lobby. Google and Facebook that protest against such moves elsewhere in the world are part of this lobby group in India - Google too Joins COAI

Seething with rage and helplessness Ram said with an emotionally charged voice

Ram: Well what can a common person like me do now!! Though I want to safeguard the Internet I am helpless
Syam: Well you are wrong dude. As I read somewhere many groups and individuals are trying to put their own views and counter arguments in a variety of ways. See how a 4 million support by American citizens made Obama to support the net-neutrality concept and overrule the comments by the regulatory authority chief Tom Wheeler - Obama declares support for net neutrality

But still what we lack is a lot of support by the public. The advocacy groups can be helped by you and everyone of your friends and their acquaintances and so on by doing the following

Always remember internet is the electronic and most unregulated medium for "free expression" today. It empowers the powerless and so it becomes our duty to join forces today and stop this injustice from being meted out.

Ram has since vowed to do all that is needed to protect net-neutrality because he also ultimately would benefit from such an initiative. Can you do the same?

This article was contributed by Mr. Sandeep Pillai who works as a software developer and is passionate about mobiles and telecom sector. Sandeep is also an activist in the net neutrality space. For more information you can contact him - [email protected]

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