When it comes to ensuring neutrality over the internet, the Indian telecom regulator has taken an enlightened stand vis-a-vis its US counterpart. In its much-awaited recommendations to Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on Tuesday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) umbiguously came out in full support to keeping the internet free, open and accessible to all. It had earlier sought opinions from various stakeholders and the general public on how to shape its rules, and has now unveiled a positive approach. Disallowing telecom operators to prioritise content, throttle or block content on their data networks, TRAI has made it clear that blocking, degrading or granting preferential higher speed to one set of content over another will be treated as discrimitory. TRAI chairman RS Sharma has said the internet is too important a platform to be left to telecom service providers seeking to ‘act as gatekeepers’. In his take on ensuring Net neutrality, Sharma has focused on the Indian context. “We have 500 million net subscribers and 1.3 billion population. Big things will happen on Internet and it is important to keep it open,” he has said, rightly giving priority to content. While nobody owns the internet, it serves as the basic infrastructure for development of many other markets. The imposition of restrictions on access to internet could hinder growth and innovation in those markets, TRAI has stated in its recommendations. “This in turn would have a direct impact on the health of the internet services sector as a whole, which both supports and is supported by the use of various form of content on the internet,” TRAI has added.
Barring service providers from entering into any kind of arrangement that results in discrimitory Net access, TRAI has also proposed to amend existing licences to incorporate principles on Net neutrality. It has further suggested creation of a panel of representatives of internet service providers, content providers and consumer groups to monitor Net neutrality violations across the country. While batting for all content on internet to be available to consumers without any discrimition or restriction, TRAI has however made an exception for specialized services that government may offer, like tele-medicine and e-learning. TRAI’s recommendations will thus surely reassure activists fighting to keep the internet free, and can be contrasted with the regressive stand lately taken by the US telecom regulator Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Drawing up a new set of rules to be put to vote in the US next month, FCC has suggested scrapping of 2015 rules that guaranteed a free and open internet. This is being interpreted as a rollback of Net neutrality — a clear move to give telecom operators the power to determine what content on the internet consumers can see and access. It is ironical, considering that the internet is largely a gift bestowed by the US and has hitherto been seen as a superhighway to information that is free and open to all, never to be parcelled out and cannibalised for profit. The principled standpoint of the Indian telecom regulator means that powerful content developers cannot strike up cosy understandings with telecom operators under which internet users will get fast lanes to access these contents — to the detriment of rival content developers (usually newcomers and not so well off) whose content will be throttled or blocked outright. The ball is in the court of Department of Telecommunications to adopt the TRAI recommendations, so as to set India firmly on the path of Net neutrality. For a country planning to go digital and thereby bring the fruits of development to crores of poor and deprived people, access to the internet has to remain free.