The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s move in favour of an open and accessible neutral internet regime is a big relief for common netizens from the Indian sub-continent. The next step would be for the Narendra Modi government to accept with alacrity TRAI’s recommendations that are in keeping with an open society. This is reflected in the regulatory body’s description of the internet as an “open platform”.
TRAI, led by RS Sharma, has put an end to the practice of some Indian internet services providers (ISPs) prioritising content, creating fast and slow lanes on internet highway. Also, with the latest recommendations, spelt out in a 55-page document, the regulator has inhibited telecom companies from making unwarranted profits through differential tariff regimes on data traffic, content and applications. However, it has said that “specialised services” that require a higher quality levels should be kept out of the purview of net neutrality, without of course impacting the overall quality of internet services.
Sharma and his team need a big pat on the back for putting in place rules that do not discriminate the net user based on the ability to pay. There is no reason why the internet should not be accessible to anyone who wishes to get on to the information highway. In a way, Indian rules would now be far more robust and equitable in terms of providing access to the internet in a country with over 1.25 billion people, mostly with meagre resources to pay for accessing content or availing of public services.
Once these recommendations are implemented, telecom services providers and ISPs will not be in a position to provide advantage or disadvantage to individuals, companies, groups or class of users. If this happened by any chance, it would only kill innovation, competition and enterprise especially at a time when India is firmly marching towards a digitised and less-cash economy following the demonetisation of high-value currency notes.
By preventing infrastructure keepers from interference on access, negativity owing to external forces has been negated with force of the statute. TRAI recommendations are diagonally opposite to the amendments by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in the US last week that virtually ended net neutrality in spirit and content.
FCC headed by Ajit Pai seems to have not only undone the basic net neutrality regime in America, prevalent in last 20 years, but also played into the hands of large ISPs like AT&T, Comcast Corporation and Verizon Communications that are likely to reap huge revenue benefits running into billions of dollars and decide on the content to be made accessible. Ending net neutrality norms also means a big setback for open access platforms like Facebook, Google and Netflix.
By contrast, pricing of internet services in India may not swing by big margins given that the TRAI recommendations do not allow preferential pricing regimes by ISPs and telecom operators especially offering 4G and 5G-based internet based data services. TRAI would have done well by limiting the small window provided for ‘special services’ that was prone to misuse by ISPs and telecom companies vying for high-end net-based data customers.
Given that prime minister Narendra Modi has committed billions of dollars worth of public funds to take telecom and IT infrastructure to the remotest parts for giving a big push to digital economy, keeping internet open and accessible is the only way forward. Thankfully, TRAI was not influenced by the authoritarian regimes of China’s Xi Jinping or Russian president Vladimir Putin that have complete control on allowing access to content, websites, web applications, chat rooms or groups. Even the slightest comment opposing these two leaders could possibly lead to denying internet access to an individual or group. Modi and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad have already voted in favour of an open, accessible and democratic net regime. Hence, TRAI recommendations going through appears to be a formality.