Using the analogy of a toll road to explain net neutrality, Trai chairman RS Sharma tells Pranav Mukul why it is important for the country to adopt a neutral internet. He says that huge things are going to happen on the internet and it is important for India to keep it open. Edited excerpts:
What is the broader thought process that went behind Trai’s recommendations on net neutrality?
One overarching thought which we had was that for a country like India, internet is an extremely important platform. Internet today is a great platform for innovation, banking, public services, government applications such as tele-medicine, health, education, agriculture. It is further going to be very important in view of internet of things. Therefore, it is important that this platform is kept open and free, and it is not cannibalised. Essentially, we are saying that keeping these overarching principles in mind that the internet remains open and free platform, we have given these recommendations.
On numerous occasions in the recommendations, Trai has quoted the 2015 US order that supported net neutrality. Does that mean Trai is not in favour of the latest development?
We have quoted almost every domain and every country. Brazil, Europe, etc. So it is not a particular regulator that we are quoting. It’s not limited to one particular order. I really don’t have any comments to make on what US is doing. What every country does is best for that country. What we are saying is that from our perspective, we needed to keep the Indian context in mind. India has 500 million internet subscribers now, and huge things are going to happen on internet, so it is important for us to keep it open.
While the regulator has suggested a number of rules, it hasn’t defined net neutrality as such…
I always give the analogy of the toll road. Let’s say if someone wants to come to Delhi from outside using a toll road. The toll operator would charge on the basis of vehicle, but does not give a discount for going to a specific shop or an area. Essentially, what we are saying is if telecom service providers have charged for data, then they should just do data relaying. The choice of accessing what content I want to access should be left to me.
What is the context in which traffic management practices have been allowed
Again giving the example of a road, if there’s an accident, then the toll road operator has the responsibility to clear the traffic. He should have the freedom to exercise traffic management practices. Saving the network from a cyber attack — these are the kinds of legitimate things a TSP will have to perform. However, we have also said that those practices should be transient, proportionate, and transparent. Along with these, we have also prescribed disclosure norms, where we say that whenever such practices are deployed they should inform the Trai and the government, and the impact it had on user experience.
Trai has also excluded specialised services from the rules of net neutrality but hasn’t defined any…
Specialised services are essentially those services that have extremely critical quality requirement, which are not really internet related. They would basically require specialised resources and should not be used as substitute for internet. Typically, it should be point to point. For example, if a bank creates a network within its branches, it is a specialised service, it does not use public internet. However, it should not happen that if a company is offering internet services also, then it should not create specialised services that create problem for the normal consumer. We cannot hardcore these specialised services because they may continue to develop. We have given a flavour of the services, and have said that Department of Telecommunications may specify what these would be.
You have also recommended changes in the licensing regime. Do the existing conditions allow licensees to flout net neutrality?
Our unified license document states very clearly that there should be unrestricted and non-discriminatory access. It already has provisions. So it is not as if pending the acceptance of these recommendations, someone can say that we want to do what we want to do. What we are trying to do is make them more explicit and more in tune with the current digital age.
What happens when someone violates net neutrality norms?
We have recommended the changes in the licence and other provisions, therefore whatever will be the penalties for violating the licensing conditions will also be applicable here. Essentially, we have made the framework for changing the existing licensing conditions, so separate penalties don’t need to be set.