If Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement is any indication, the NDA government has taken a heartening position on net neutrality: the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to discriminate between packets of data. Prasad noted, rightly, that the internet should be linked to “the common man” in a “non-discriminatory manner”. He was responding to criticism stirred up by a consultation paper issued by Trai. The paper is vaguely worded and seems tilted in favour of ISPs and telecom companies like Airtel and Vodafone, which, like their counterparts elsewhere, would prefer to junk the concept.
Given the intricate nature of modern telecommunications law, it is unsurprising that an issue so central to the networked economy has evaded mainstream consideration. But concerted social media activism after the US regulator moved to classify the internet as a utility in February, thus adopting net neutrality, and Airtel launched a platform called Airtel Zero that would exempt certain services from data charges on the network, has driven the conversation on the need for Indian policymakers to enshrine it in law. Nearly four lakh emails have been sent in three days, imploring Trai to safeguard net neutrality. Without legal protection, deep-pocketed companies like Google and Amazon would be able to pay ISPs for privileged “fast lanes” or cut deals allowing consumers to access their services for free. This would create a tiered internet where such companies would be able to protect their dominant positions from challenges by less flush start-ups, stifling innovation and harming the level playing field so integral to the emergence of one-time upstarts like Facebook.
Some have suggested that for India, with its low internet penetration rates, net neutrality is a luxury. The government’s imperative, the argument goes, should be to bridge the digital divide and expand access by any means necessary. There is some merit to this, especially when seen with efforts like Facebook’s internet.org initiative, which attempt to provide the web services many of us have come to take for granted, such as WhatsApp, for free or at concessional data rates. And telecom companies , the primary ISPs in India, have a point when they claim to operate in a highly competitive market where they make little profit from voice calls or texts and need incentives to invest in building infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. But on the whole, this argument is disingenuous. Brazil, an emerging market peer where internet penetration is around 50 per cent last year passed an “internet bill of rights” that makes net neutrality law. Trading an open internet for an imagined gain in penetration is a Faustian bargain, hurting the very attributes that make the internet the disruptive marketplace of ideas it is today.