The return of the Net Neutrality debate in India


    In Context

    • The telecom operators have gone from demanding payment to manage scarce resources on their networks to demanding payment for enormous usage on their networks.

    About Net neutrality

    • Why?
      • To enable access to the internet, various gateways have come up in the last few decades in the form of telecom service providers, personal computers and smartphones, operating systems, etc. 
      • However, when these gateways enable and restrict access to other gateways or networks, the openness of the internet is threatened.
    • What?
      • Net neutrality is the concept of an open, equal internet for everyone, regardless of device, application or platform used and content consumed.
        • Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coins the term. 
        • It is used as a broad label in internet public policy and regulatory discussions concerning online freedom of expression, competition of service, innovation, pricing, and internet traffic management.
    • How?
      • So, Net Neutrality ensures telecom and Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, site, platform, or application. 
      • The connection providers cannot engage in practices such as blocking, slowing down or granting preferential speeds to any content.

    The current demand & debate

    • COAI’s demand:
      • The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio, the three major telecom operators in India, has been demanding that platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp pay a share of revenue to make up for the network costs.
    • Arguments in favour of the demand:
      • Paying for the infrastructure:
        • This concept of paying for the use of infrastructure is an excellent concept wherein any entity that uses another entity’s infrastructure should pay for it. 
      • Sharing revenues:
        • However, the revenues earned by the infra provider [telecom operators] should also be shared with the entity using it in the same proportion.
      • No infrastructure with content providers:
        • The apparent claim by the telecom operators is that content providers don’t build any of this infrastructure on their own.
        • The infrastructure for any communication network includes data centres, undersea cables, content hosting centres, content delivery networks (CDNs), etc — all of which are built by the OTT platforms.
    • Arguments against the demand:
      • No open Internet:
        • According to the critics, charging a network fee will break the core essence of an open Internet.
          • Net neutrality activists (as well as content providers) have argued that imposing such a fee, even on a limited number of large players, was a distortion of the Internet’s architecture, where content providers and telecom operators enjoy a symbiotic relationship without charging each other, and users pay both, in the form of fees or advertisements, or both.
      • Co-existence:
        • Telecom operators and platforms support “each other’s growth, and neither can exist without the other”.
      • Universal Service Obligation Fund:
        • According to critics, instead of providing for this demand, the government could reduce spectrum fees and support telecom companies with the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).
      • Democratic exchange of content:
        • Net neutrality supporters believe that the internet should remain free, open and nondiscriminatory and that this is essential for a democratic exchange of ideas and knowledge, ethical business practices, fair competition and ongoing innovation.

    TRAI’s stand in favour of Net neutrality

    • In 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled in favour of Net neutrality, the concept that all traffic on an Internet network has to be treated equally.
      • The telecom regulator concluded that programmes such as Free Basics by Facebook (now Meta) and telecom operators’ plans to charge extra for data calls using apps like Viber would be prohibited, as all Internet access had to be priced equally.
    • The Department of Telecommunications in 2018 embedded the net neutrality concept into the Unified Licence, whose conditions all telecom operators and Internet providers are bound by

    Worldwide operations

    • European Union:
      • Telecom operators in the European Union are also demanding similar usage fees from content providers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a prominent Internet rights advocacy group in the U.S., warned against such moves.
      • The EU is holding consultations on the issue this year before it finalises its stand.
    • USA:
      • In 2014, in the U.S., where the Net neutrality movement largely took root, the debate was not about the prices consumers paid. 
        • It came in the aftermath of telecom operators trying to get companies such as Netflix to pay them in view of the enormous amounts of traffic that flowed on their networks from them.
      • The U.S. had, and continues to have, programmes like T-Mobile Binge On, where traffic from certain content providers is ‘zero-rated’, which means it would not be counted in users’ data limits.

    Way ahead

    • In the years since, the Indian telecom industry has far outpaced the U.S. in terms of data consumed per month on mobile Internet connections, a result of the sharp drop in tariffs after Reliance Jio launched 4G services. 
    • Now, Indian telecom operators are emulating the approach that American carriers had aggressively pursued a decade ago.


    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] Discuss the telecom operators’ recent demand for content-creating platforms to pay the share of revenue to make up for the network costs. What is the regulation for Net neutrality in India?