Stuck between neutrality & farcicality

Airtel's proposed pricing plan for online access has caused outrage and there is no escaping the debate

Founding Fuel

[Photograph by Backbone Campaign under Creative Commons]

[This just in : Since the time this primer was published last evening, Flipkart has decided to pull out of Airtel Zero. Activists for Net Neutrality in India think this a big win. Read Nextbigwhat and Medianama for details]  

Over the last 48 hours, an online petition in favour of net neutrality has gained 162,927 signatures - with 3,000 emails going out to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) every 10 minutes.

Between celebrities, activists and journalists, they ensured Monday was witness to #savetheinternet being the second most discussed topic on Twitter. The online campaign was led by Nikhil Pahwa, editor of medianama.com and Kiran Jonnalagada, the founder of HasGeek, and supported by at least 50 other individuals. These include lawyers Raman Jit Singh Chima and Apar Gupta; Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore and Rohin Dharmakumar, entrepreneur, journalist, and a contributor to Founding Fuel. On Saturday afternoon, they set up a website, where they have framed answers to 21 questions mentioned in the TRAI consultation paper.

Much of the ire on social media was targeted at Airtel, India’s largest telecom company, which has allegedly introduced a new platform that violates commonly understood notions of net neutrality.

Flipkart, the country’s largest e-commerce firm, found itself under fire as well. This came on the back of its co-founder Sachin Bansal deciding to take on those stridently opposed to his call to opt for Airtel’s data package.

Surprisingly, Shah Rukh Khan, Airtel Zero’s brand ambassador, decided to extend support to the net neutrality campaign by sharing a YouTube video on Twitter, created by stand up comedians All India Bakchod.

The introduction of Airtel Zero allows Internet companies to buy data from Internet Service Providers (ISP) on behalf of consumers, so they can surf specific websites for free. Flipkart has been open about their involvement in the Airtel Zero Campaign. Ironically though, Bansal of Flipkart claims his firm is in the pro net neutrality camp.

His position got incensed users to down rate the Flipkart app on Android and iOS app stores and uninstall it as well. More on the controversy, can be read from this article on NextBigWhat.com, a digital platform on technology start-ups.

Despite all efforts to decode the real issues in the debate, it is still unclear just how many of those supporting the online and social media campaign understand its full import. There is an oft-repeated analogy that may help put things into perspective. Imagine a rickshaw driver decides to take you to his favourite restaurant for free, but charges you extra to go at the same speed to other restaurants.

Net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet and a level playing field for all internet based businesses on the premise that ISPs don’t discriminate on the back of commercial relationships they share with some firms.

This means three things.

  • All sites must be equally accessible.
  • Speed of access to all sites is same.
  • It costs the same amount to access.

More on the theme is here in this explainer by medianama.com.

In India, the issue has raised its head a little late in the day. Chile chiseled net neutrality into law in 2010. Since then countries like Netherlands, Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Israel, Brazil and have enforced laws in favor of net neutrality.

The issue according to US President Barack Obama is that net neutrality is "built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation." Obama has claimed that an "open Internet" is important for the U.S. economy. "We cannot allow ISPs to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas," Obama said, acknowledging the four million public comments on net neutrality to the FCC.

On February 26, 2015, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 706 of the Telecommunications act of 1996.

However not all countries have met with similar success. The European Union takes a call on the theme via a “rotating presidency policy” every six months. In 2014, the presidency of the debate went to Italy. On its part, Italy’s posturing wasn’t clear. On the one hand it opposed discriminatory stands taken by telecom companies. On the other hand, it encouraged competition that allowed differentiated pricing and alterable speeds.

The European Parliament holds that it wants to uphold a more definitive position on net neutrality—similar to America’s choice to vote in favour of net neutrality. But the European Union is ambiguous as to when a final decision will be enforced.

India is facing a similar dilemma with telecom regulator TRAI issuing a consultation paper. The TRAI consultation paper raises the question whether over-the-top (OTT) services should be regulated or not. It has asked for public opinion before arriving at its decision.

At the heart of this debate is a simple issue. ISPs argue the emergence of OTTs such as Whatsapp have eaten into their traditional revenue streams such as text messaging and voice calls. By launching new pricing models like Airtel Zero, a telco is merely trying to regain lost revenues.

Global internet firms, like Google, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter have long opposed net neutrality, as this article from NextBigWhat shows—and their stance in India is no different. It isn’t hard to guess why they would do so: it clearly increases their profitability by eliminating competition.

Airtel, on its part, has released a press statement that maintains Airtel Zero will be affordable for start ups as well, a claim few are inclined to believe. In a post on LinkedIn, Rohin Dharmakumar has argued why data plans like Airtel Zero should not be allowed.

However, there are a few commentators who believe that the fight for net neutrality is baseless—like this  op-ed piece published in The Financial Express. It argues that it is nothing but a differential pricing system which is common in every market from electricity charges rising by the block to airplane ticket prices varying on the seat and the urgency of travel.

Kellogg professor Mohanbir Sawhney said in an interview, "I  believe that service providers should have the ability to offer differentiated and premium quality experience to the customers who are willing to pay extra. However, at the same time we want to make sure that there is a same base lever of access that is provided to everybody who wants to be on the network.... If I want to pay extra to watch my movie in high definition [or] to make sure my video doesn't buffer, I should have the ability to get a differentiated quality of experience. So, we need to come out somewhere middle in this debate, where as long as we have a base level of access... service providers should have the ability to provide premium services to the customer and e-commerce partners who are willing to pay extra." 

What’s next? The rising tide of public opinion has prompted the Competition Commission of India (CCI) to look into allegations whether Airtel Zero’s data packages have violated anti-competitive pricing norms. On April 24, TRAI plans to close the public debate. Given just how strident the debate has been, the regulator’s final recommendation to the government will be closely watched.

 (Curated by Anna Abraham and Nikeetaa Ghaneckar)

[Updated on 14 April 2015 at 12 p.m. to include Kellogg professor Mohanbir Sawhney's views on net neutrality.]

[Updated on 14 April 2015 at 1:17 p.m. to include Flipkart's decision to pull out of Airtel Zero.]

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