As Trump’s America prepares to tilt the electronic game board in favour of the big players, India has spoken out against the motion. On December 14, the US Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal to roll back rules instituted by the Barack Obama administration to guarantee net neutrality, the principle that internet hosts and networks must not discriminate between users and providers. They must neither throttle nor accelerate access in any effort to put certain content providers and certain users in preferential contact with each other. This anti-discriminatory principle has served as an accelerator for the internet and made it a site of innovation, to the benefit of content and service providers, and their consumers.
The TRAI’s recommendations, which flow from year-long consultations, support the perception that the internet will remain a fast-moving domain of innovation, to the enormous benefit of the developing world. Equal access will accelerate interventions in banking, commerce, agriculture, distribution, retailing and e-governance, whose cumulative benefit far outweighs the gains in infrastructure expected from an unequal internet, in which participants pay for preferential access. The TRAI has excluded only specialised services like intranets, which do not use the public internet, content delivery networks which accelerate access, and technical services which depend on fast, dedicated traffic.
The diametric opposition between the US and Indian regulators’ perceptions of net neutrality reflects the reality that the internet is different things to different people. In a mature market like the US, where the internet was born, monetising it more efficiently may appear to be an overriding imperative, even in the teeth of public opposition. But for a developing country, the internet is primarily a great equaliser, delivering quality communications to the hitherto silent interior, driving information, education and health services seamlessly all over the country and helping the underserved to connect with government and the financial system. An equal-access internet also allows bootstrappers to challenge the big brands. This has been an important factor in the rapid growth of the internet economy, and promises to remain so in a future driven by artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things. The demise of the smartphone, whose countdown may have begun, promises a creative explosion of its own. The TRAI is wise to bet on these processes, which can flourish only in an open, equal internet. The social and economic capital they generate would be enormous.