Published On: Sun, Apr 26th, 2015

Round Two: Fighting Over Net Neutrality in India

In 2003, University of Columbia Professor, Tim Wu, coined the term “net neutrality,” to describe the principled theory which dictates that those providing and governing the internet should not discriminate against any data, regardless of limiting factors like content, or platform. The concept and issues surrounding it are complex, at times confusing, and have drawn significant attention in the US over the last months.

Now, as the country prepares itself for post-vote litigation over the controversial practice, India is gearing up to fight round two.

Why is India next?

photo Anonymous9000 via Flickr

photo Anonymous9000 via Flickr

Often social issues that become hot button topics for public discourse find their parallels in the UK or China, but India shares some unique qualities with the US when it comes to web usage, making it fertile ground for an extension of the neutrality debate. First, an internet regulator that gives certain companies (mostly telecommunication companies like AT&T or Comcast) priority over potential (mostly web-based rivals).

Second, activists who are bombarding Indian officials with so much public opinion on the issue that they can no longer avoid taking a position themselves. Third, popular culture icons (like comedians) who are taking a hint from some of the best in digital advertising and creating videos viral videos around the issue.

How sub-zero rating tilts the scales

The big difference between India’s battle with net neutrality and the one recently waged in the states: Facebook. In the US the social media giant has remained peripheral to the debate, but India’s activists have honed in on Internet.org, highlighting the website (owned by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who intends to use it to “expand internet access across developing countries”) for a practice known as zero-rating. One which they say will give Facebook, and other companies like it, an unfair advantage over upstarts hoping to provide similar services.

For Facebook, zero-rating may be a way to cast a wider net, expand it’s usership on an international scale,but for the activists who oppose it, because zero-rating involves offering certain services without a fee to those who subscribe to the web, Internet.org users are being offered a uniquely unfair edge, eliminating fair competition.

The comment period

After telecom companies in India spent the better part of a year accusing regulators of allowing unfair competition into the marketplace via the internet (citing companies like Skype, which offer voice and video services for low or no fees, and without government oversight, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) took the issue under formal consideration in March, releasing what is known as a “consultation paper.” Suggesting, simultaneously, that net neutrality may be necessary to regulate the various competing telecom companies.

Activists managed to gather and send over 800,000 letters to the TRAI over the comment period, thanks to the fact that most telecom companies are vastly unpopular (another similarity to between India and the US).

One battle at a time

To combat this practice and punctuate their appeals, activists have targeted and chased off former Internet.org comrades, including Cleartrip, Flipkart, and the Times Group.

In a surprise counter strike, Zuckerberg penned an op-ed for a popular Indian newspaper, defending the zero-rating process by reminding readers of other, more dangerous practices. “Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services, or create fast lanes. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes,” he wrote.

Zuckerberg’s impassioned promises would have fallen on deaf ears in the US, anyhow, the latest rules approved by the Federal Communications Commission don’t address the policy of zero-rating at all. In fact, T-Mobile and AT&T each boast their own version of the zero-rating program, something the Commission says it will deal with on a case-by-case basis.

For now, despite critics who claim Facebook has shown it’s true colors and relinquished its so-called principals, the company openly supports the practice of net neutrality in India, as long as, by definition, the term makes room for the practice of zero-rating.

Guest Author: Lolita Di


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