India has decided to keep the Internet open, while Donald Trump-led United States is set to do just the opposite. It is a development rich with irony, for the Net was conceived and given birth in US. The inter-ministerial Telecom Commission has given its nod to recommendations on Net neutrality made last November by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Accordingly, internet service providers (ISPs) in India will be barred from discriminating against internet content in any form whatsoever, whether by blocking, slowing down or granting faster access to users. All data on Internet must be treated equally, and users cannot be charged differentially on the basis of content, site, platform or application. The Indian government’s decision can be contrasted with the Trump administration’s move to repeal Net neutrality rules put in place by the Obama administration. After the US Federal Commission voted 3-2 in December last year to allow ISPs to block or throttle access to certain content and websites while offering paid ‘fast lanes’ for web traffic, the decision has taken effect last week. Opinion polls in US have been consistently showing overwhelming public opposition against this move which Democrats have dubbed “horribly misguided”, and protracted battles are looming in the Senate as well as the courts. So why has the Trump administration dumped Net neutrality? It is because it has bought the argument by a lobby that if all networks are considered equal, then why would an internet giant like Google or Verizon invest billions of dollars to build new fiber optic networks that are around 50 times faster and give users speeds of the order 1 gigabit per second? The heart of the matter is how to classify broadband internet services — as a telecom service that comes under ‘public utilities’, or as an information service that allows users to store, process and publish information online. After the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that broadband internet service can be considered as information service, the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit ruled in 2014 that Net neutrality rules cannot be imposed on a ‘low regulation information service’ like broadband internet service. Proponents of a free internet have warned that if this principle is junked, it would discourage innovations by internet start-ups (like Mark Zuckerberg did to give the world Facebook), while giving ISPs unwarranted powers to block access to companies that don’t pay them or content that they don’t like. How this debate is resolved in the US will bear watching, but thankfully in India, the government has come out firmly in support of Net neutrality. This decision ought to be a shot in the arm of all internet start-ups in the country dreaming of coming up with the next big revolutionary online product.
Keeping the Net open