Net for all

If a poor man can't access internet on par with a Ambani, then net neutrality fails humanity

Democratising internet cannot remain just an objective, it should become a tangible agenda for the Narendra Modi government. Accepting telecom watchdog, Telecom Regulatory Association of India (Trai) recommendations on net neutrality by inter-ministerial body, Telecom Commission, should be the starting point. Equality for netizens right to access content with speed is like enforcing basic citizens’ rights in a democratic set up like ours. Trai and Telecom Commission need to work out a foolproof mechanism to deal with internet service providers (ISPs), telecom services companies (TSPs) and social networking companies who violate democratic values.

Stringent punishment leading to jail term and monetary fines will have to be slapped against violators. Trai may have to take upon itself the responsibility not to encourage or even consider zero-rated data plans hitherto attempted by Bharti Airtel.

Companies like Reliance Jio that have access to both content and high speed broadband services will have to resist the temptation of providing preferential treatment to top-end customers at a price. Facebook should be barred from coming up with crazy ideas like Free Basics that are illegal, throttle or block most users while favouring some apps and websites.

It’s like some brokers linked to BSE and NSE getting priority access to market data a few minutes early to enable them manipulate trades and profiteer illicitly. This goes against the very tenets of a free market economy.

Net neutrality is like opening up Indian society to the world. In fact, the policy package approved by Telecom Commission – Trai is perhaps one of the most ‘progressive and open’ dispensations globally.

Net neutrality laws in India ring in at a time Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in US ended democratic access to internet. It’s akin to US ringing in protectionism under President Donald Trump after having preached virtues of a globalised economy.

As a result, Internet Services Providers (ISPs) in US can block some sites or apps. Carving out high-speed lines for some is not a crime anymore.

In contrast, even countries like China have shown signs of flexibility in lifting restrictions on internet in a phased manner.

In Europe, there’s an explicit ban on ISPs from blocking some sites or slowing down non-priority traffic. Revenue considerations notwithstanding, EU member countries can bring about some discrimination only to ensure integrity and security of the net. While countries like Brazil and South Korea provide complete net neutrality, Japan hardly has laws to regulate net management. In Australia, blocking or slowing down may not happen but zero rated plans are allowed.

Given that Indian economy is getting increasingly digital, discriminatory pricing or treatment of net users will defeat the very purpose of technology interface. For instance, if a Jan Dhan Yojana account holder cannot access his modest bank account on par with Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani, then “net neutrality” as a concept fails humanity.

Trai – Telecom Commission have readied a list of specialised services that may not come under purview of ‘net neutrality’. Privileged customers for instance can access remote medical diagnostics, self-driving cars or even specialised financial services at a cost.

Once the new norms become operative through a notification, open access to social media, WhatsApp or messenger networks should be delivered for all stakeholders without discrimination. But, emergency services may not be covered under the ‘democratising the net norms’.

For achieving these lofty objectives, Telecom Commission has rightly proposed framing Internet Traffic Management (ITM) rules to make net access as easy as possible.