What is the big takeaway from the DoT committee report on Net Neutrality?
The Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT’s) Net Neutrality report says “the core principles of Net Neutrality must be adhered to”, and that user rights on the Internet need to be protected — so that service providers are not able to restrict their ability to access any service on the Internet.
What does it say on the continuing use of OTT messaging services such as WhatsApp and Skype?
It rejects the demand for regulation of over-the-top (OTT) messaging services. But the panel is okay with subjecting VoIP calls within the country to regulation — and calls for a liberal approach on OTT VoIP international call services. What is unclear is how the government will make the distinction between VoIP OTTs and Messaging OTTs, as these two spheres are the same now. The committee has said that while messaging on an OTT service like WhatsApp should not regulated, if the same app also offers voice-calling services, they should be subject to regulations that are already in place for TSPs/ISPs.
So does this mean TSPs/ISPs have no choice but to continue to allow these OTT messaging services?
Service providers cannot regulate messaging services as per the recommendations.
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What about zero-rating platforms like Facebook’s Internet.org and Airtel Zero?
The committee says that “content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers” and go against the principles of Net Neutrality. It also notes that very often the content market sees the rise of a leader, and that if these end up directing users to “specific content”, it amounts to a violation of Net Neutrality. Based on what the committee has recommended, Internet.org or even Airtel Zero rating app will be seen as violating the principle of Net Neutrality.
What does the panel say on traffic management practices by TSPs or ISPs?
While the report is in favour of “legitimate traffic management practices”, it says that TSPs/ISPs must make adequate disclosures to users about their traffic management policies. Additionally, traffic management that is “exploitative or anti-competitive” should not be allowed. Essentially, if a TSP starts, say, a video-streaming or music service, it cannot slow down the speed of a competing service of a similar nature on its networks.
What about tariff plans? Can TSPs/ISPs offer lucrative tariff plans in return for claiming for themselves the right to gatekeep the content you access?
No. The panel says tariff plans offered by TSPs/ISPs must conform to the principles of Net Neutrality, and TRAI will have the power to examine these tariff plans. So a special tariff plan for WhatsApp or even Wikipedia which offers the service for free, could be seen to be in violation of the principle of Net Neutrality.
What does the committee say on search neutrality?
The committee has not made any recommendations on the issue, other than flagging this as a concern for public policy. Search neutrality demands that search engines not base their rankings on editorial decisions, and show results based on relevance.
What happens now?
These are recommendations of the panel, and finally TRAI will have to decide what to adopt. Even after that, the regulations could face legal challenges from stakeholders.
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