April 23, 2015 12:07:53 am
A day after he made a feisty return to Parliament, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of net neutrality in the House, arguing for the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) be barred from prioritising data in exchange for money. This paper agrees that this principle must be defended if the open and innovative nature of the internet is to be preserved. However, as with his intervention on the land acquisition bill, Gandhi did so by casting private corporations in the role of evil marauders and accused the Narendra Modi government of trying to “carve out the Net and hand it over to some corporates”. That’s rich, coming from a leader whose party’s government was embroiled in scandal over its preferential allocation of 2G spectrum to select telecom providers.
However, Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s response, too, failed to illuminate the pros and cons of net neutrality, reiterating only the opaque platitude that his government’s “aim is that the country’s 125 crore people should have internet”.
From the Congress’s point of view, it might look like good political strategy to paint the government as captive to corporate interests, as the post-sabbatical Rahul seems bent on doing, but such hyperbole does disservice to the issue at stake. The unparalleled growth of the mobile industry in India occurred when the state got out of the way and created a regulatory environment that enabled private enterprise to flourish. Competition helped drive prices down so that the poor could also afford mobiles. So when telecom companies like Vodafone and Airtel, primary ISPs in a country where fixed internet infrastructure has not spread, argue that they should be able to partner, for a fee, with online counterparts like Facebook or Google to offer certain services to consumers for free, there is more to it than greed. Net neutrality is essential to ensuring that the online marketplace of ideas continues to reward the best product, but it is not a policy without costs. It may slow down internet penetration in poorer, more cut-off areas because companies will then be less inclined to invest in the creation of infrastructure. The government will have to pursue alternate methods to achieve that objective.
On internet related issues, neither the BJP nor the Congress has a robust record. Both adopted indefensible positions on the now-defunct Section 66A of the IT act. Their claim to being the guardian of internet freedom is, therefore, suspect. Now, they could make up for past mistakes by enshrining net neutrality in law. But internet governance is an ongoing project — will either party take up the cudgels for, say, the right to privacy, the enactment of which could curtail the state’s snooping capabilities?
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.