By explicitly barring differential pricing or “zero rating” of data services on the basis of content, route or application, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has settled the net neutrality debate in favour of the principle of equality, spurning the blandishments of expediency. Differential pricing and the bundling of services would allow providers to increase coverage at a dramatic rate, helping the government’s Digital India initiative. However, it would have favoured big business with deep pockets, at the expense of small players and start-ups, a segment whose promotion the government has prioritised. Facebook’s eagerness to establish a bigger presence in the emerging Indian market had lent urgency to the question. India is prime property for the social media giant, whose growth is plateauing in more developed and less populated markets. Following Trai’s publication of a consultation paper in December, Facebook had launched a massive evangelical blitz titled “Save Free Basics”, referring to its programme, to vacuum up a huge new user base in India in exchange for free, stripped-down services. Indeed, for many concerned Indians, the larger question of net neutrality boiled down to arguments for and against Facebook’s campaign.
But the prowess of Facebook itself illustrates why net neutrality is an absolute good. What began as a bit of PHP code to connect Harvard University students could scale up and deploy globally within two years of its launch because the whole internet was its playground. It did not have to negotiate the distribution bottlenecks of traditional media, where established companies have an edge. TV channels must charm DTH and cable providers; book publishers must persuade distributors. An internet start-up only has to convince its users and investors, because the neutral internet renders it as accessible to the world as the giant corporations it competes with. Apart from discouraging enterprise, the “bubbling” of users — closing off news of the world by providing a curated slice of it for free — would constrain access to knowledge and discourage the democratisation of thought, the finest gifts of the internet.
While posing as a policy that would narrow the digital divide by offering pared-down internet services to those who can afford none, zero-rated products are actually a form of predatory pricing, and India’s regulator has followed its dharma by banning them from Indian cyberspace. It has rightly valued public opinion over the pet projects of government and big business. While Digital India would certainly empower people over the long term, support for start-ups in a broader landscape of technological creativity would create jobs and capabilities immediately. Government should now support this sunrise sector not with the taxpayer’s money, which it has rashly ventured, but by creating an environment for incubating start-ups.