The ban on differential pricing for data content by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is being rightly welcomed as a principled stand to preserve Net neutrality. In its much awaited order after seeking countrywide response to a consultation paper, the telecom watchdog has laid down the rule that internet service providers cannot offer or charge ‘discrimitory’ tariffs for data services on the basis of content. Those flouting this order will be pelized at Rs 50,000 per day, subject to a cap of Rs 50 lakh. The principle of Net neutrality, which says that all websites on the internet should be treated equally, became a much debated issue in the country last year. At the heart of the debate were apps like Facebook’s Free Basics (formerly internet.org) and Airtel Zero which promised to provide subscribers free access to the internet through a range of basic services like news, jobs, sports, health, travel, communication and other information. Internet service providers called this practice ‘differential pricing or zero-rating’, under which the content downloaded by subscribers from specified platforms will not be taken into account while computing their usage tariff. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg described Free Basics as a way of bringing the internet free to millions of Indians in rural areas. Partnering Reliance Telecom, Facebook piloted this scheme in a few states, allowing users to access free of charge Facebook’s own social network and messaging services, along with the content provided by partners. But critics, including several internet based start-up entrepreneurs and academicians from leading institutes like the IITs, argued that if the Free Basics scheme is allowed all over India, it would give online giants like Facebook huge gate-keeping powers over the internet. This would put small content providers and start-ups at a disadvantage and create entry barriers — thereby harming innovation in information technology, the critics argued. Agreeing with this view, the TRAI has now made it clear that differential pricing ‘violates the basic principles of the internet, turn the service providers into gatekeepers, which, in turn, goes against the freedom of speech, expression and media pluralism’. While differential pricing may have the potential to expand and accelerate internet access, the TRAI order says that it will result in ‘classification of subscribers based on the content they want to access’. With the Prime Minister’s ‘Digital India’ dream of putting 125 crore Indians on the internet, make governce digital and turn the country into an IT superpower, the TRAI order has now cleared the air greatly.
Net neutrality prevails