Digital India vs Net Neutrality

For PM Modi, access is top priority. But neutrality advocates needn’t despair.

Written by Dhruva Jaishankar | Updated: December 25, 2015 8:34 pm
Internet, Internet and Mobile Association of India, India, IAMAI, internet users in India, internet in india report, mobile internet users in India, mobile internet, digital india, mobiles, technology news In the US, the government eventually came out decisively in favour of net neutrality.

Today, when you start up your computer or iPhone and open a web browser such as Chrome or Safari, you can access over 100 million domain names with a few clicks. Your data costs do not change depending on whether you go to Rediff or Flipkart, or whether you download an app to order pizza or post on Twitter or watch a YouTube video. Your data provider — be it Airtel or Reliance or BSNL — does not discriminate between different kinds of content, only how much data you use. This is the benefit of a neutral net, a system that has worked to the advantage of both internet users (who have enjoyed greater choice of content) and numerous start-ups (which have enjoyed unparalleled market access).

But a shift is underway. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited California to drum up support for his Digital India initiative, he effectively endorsed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of expanded access to a pared down internet. Expanded access is, after all, one of the three pillars of Digital India (the other two being e-governance and electronics manufacturing). Why not shift costs to content providers (such as babajobs.com), who enter into exclusive contracts with data providers (such as Reliance), all enabled by Facebook’s Free Basics app? Such an arrangement could expand internet use rapidly in a country where some 80 per cent of the population does not have access, benefiting crores of people. It would also, naturally, benefit Facebook.

Advocates of net neutrality — a vocal minority linked to NGOs and internet start-ups — are unhappy with such an arrangement, which they feel will disadvantage consumers by limiting choice. It could also discriminate against smaller content providers struggling to compete with established internet companies. Net neutrality advocates have argued that there are other ways to expand access and lower costs, such as subsidising data plans or through advertising.

But this line of argument, too, has its critics. Some believe implicitly that net neutrality is an elitist concern, echoing Zuckerberg’s view that “It’s not an equal internet if the majority of people can’t participate.” Others contend that net neutrality requires unnecessary government intervention, a forcible levelling of the playing field. Why should the government prevent Facebook, Reliance and certain websites from entering into exclusive arrangements, particularly if it helps to expand access and deflect costs from consumers? The arguments against net neutrality, rather bizarrely, offer one area in which populists and free-market enthusiasts might find common cause.

Both sides of this debate bring certain compelling arguments to the table. In the United States, the government eventually came out decisively in favour of net neutrality. This made sense in an economy where the vast majority can afford access to the internet, and where monopolistic data providers were effectively price gouging. Consumer choice advocates and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly pleased.

India’s circumstances are, however, radically different. Broadband infrastructure is weak. Spectrum is expensive. Power is still in short supply. Digital access is now linked to the basics: Subsidies and rations, identification, financial inclusion and political participation. Expanding access today is therefore a top priority, which is why most of the big announcements during Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley were in this domain — not just Facebook, but also public commitments made by Microsoft and Google to connect villages and railway stations.

The prime minister has made it clear that access is his top priority, but net neutrality advocates need not completely despair. The relentless drive to expand digital access in India may be necessary in the short term, but may make less sense once the Indian internet market becomes more saturated. That is another way of saying that the access vs neutrality dilemma could resolve itself organically. As incomes rise, consumers may gradually opt for data plans that give them greater access, foregoing more restrictive but free data services. Facebook’s Free Basics would, in that event, simply be a stepping stone that contributes in time to its own irrelevance.

Jaishankar is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC and the author of ‘Internet Freedom 2.1’.

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    Aakriti
    Sep 30, 2015 at 5:31 pm
    Its amenable that net neutrality is should be there from both prospective, first that those who uses net sometimes may start to use seldomly and those startups which have just come up on fore..but we cant overlook the other side of these czars, who put efforts in their ideas into a reality..should not they get compensation or benefit of that but this thing may not be a better option in a Country like India, where most of the potion still without barefooted...it can come but only after things gonna change for majority of under privilege poce,.
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      Anurag
      Sep 30, 2015 at 7:59 am
      One of the many reasons for net neutrality would be that the very startups which are the moto of the PM in Startup India would fall prey to an industry dominated by the west, who swoop in with their deep pockets and win the market from small yet efficient local players. Maybe no future flipkart or housing but ofcourse a stable Facebook and already cash rich Reliance and a very very stagnant economic market is what Net Neutrality supporters want to avoid. They are the Indian kids with the dreams dude not Zuckeberg's pet boy.
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        Akshy Sridhar
        Sep 30, 2015 at 7:30 am
        Finally, someone views the issue from a different angle. An interesting read!
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          indian
          Sep 30, 2015 at 8:26 am
          It is incorrect to state that the PM has endorsed Zuckerberg's theory and voted against net neutrality. Telcos and big-pocket internet giants such as FB are certainly against net neutrality simply to try and create entry barriers where today none exist ! Neutrality has been the main reason for the growth and leverage of internet till date and is not an obstacle to further growth - it is ridiculous to argue against net neutrality and removing neutrality will become a Frankenstein with access not being discriminated only on commercial conditions.
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            anandap
            Sep 30, 2015 at 1:31 pm
            Suppose all the above service providers do not want to continue the same free service, is it not their prerogative or right.? Do we get free service for electricity, telephone, health, education, railway transport etc.?................................ The funny thing is what stakes do we have, to demand net neutrality while using free yahoo, google, Facebook, twitter, internet without contributing its innovation process! Don't they have patent right to change it or demand subscription as they like! Our stupid media's also jumping in the fray as if they found these.
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              MS
              Sep 30, 2015 at 5:05 pm
              Definitely you wrote from a different angle. I would agree to some of your points like expanding the access. But don't you think that we would be benefiting (if implemented) at the cost of existing customers. And yes Modi never endorsed Mark's idea. It is an incorrect premise. I think to provide access to the remaining, India has to find some different ways. As there is a huge scarcity of power, india first need to resolve this problem; install solar panels in rural areas. This can be used to install routers. Information related to agriculture, irrigation, cattle rearing and organic farming should be transmitted online and telecasted on tv. And india need to keep a check on the output.
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                MS
                Sep 30, 2015 at 5:06 pm
                Definitely you wrote from a different angle. I would agree to some of your points like expanding the access. But don't you think that we would be benefiting (if implemented) at the cost of existing customers. And yes Modi never endorsed Mark's idea. It is an incorrect premise. I think to provide access to the remaining, India has to find some different ways. As there is a huge scarcity of power, india first need to resolve this problem; install solar panels in rural areas. This can be used to install routers. Information related to agriculture, irrigation, cattle rearing and organic farming should be transmitted online and telecasted on tv. And india need to keep a check on the output.
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                  Nilesh
                  Sep 30, 2015 at 4:11 pm
                  You wrote: "Why should the government prevent Facebook, Reliance and certain websites from entering into exclusive arrangements?" The answer is because the government also prevents companies from effectively competing in the telecom sector. Net Neutrality advocates have said this from the beginning, if spectrum is deregulated, they won't be having much to complain about. Of course, the telcos themselves don't want this. They demand licensing of VoIP apps, because monopolies can survive in over-regulated market, startups cannot. Story of capitalism everywhere.
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