Should telecom operators and internet service providers (ISPs) be allowed to have differential pricing plans for services like Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype? Should there be hurdles for netizens to access the services that they want? Are these attempts to curb free speech on the part of the regime?
These are some of the fiery questions doing the rounds of social media and churning the debate around what is known as net neutrality. For the uninitiated, “net neutrality” is the principle that governs that data packets on the Internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source. The rule demands ISPs to treat all web-based services equally without any differential pricing systems or routes.
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While India does not have an existing legislation for net neutrality, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper recently on regulatory framework for over-the-top (OTT) services like Viber, WhatsApp, Skype asking for users’ comments and feedback on the issue.
The topic, which has been a heated one among free-internet crusaders for quite sometime now, has whipped up increased intensity especially on social media in the last few days. Free-speech campaigners, fresh from the victory of Section 66A in the Supreme Court, are revolting against what they call attempts to clamp down on the internet’s transparency and freedom. An online petition on change.org, which has received more than 75,000 signatures, implores TRAI to allow users to choose how they want to treat the internet.
“My basic position is that the internet has to follow principles of non-discrimination — in terms of access, speed and price,” said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama.
Pahwa added that this is by far the most dangerous legislation brought by any government in connection with the internet in India.
On the other hand, the telecom companies argue that OTTs like WhatsApp and Viber are chipping away at their core revenue without properly investing in networks. After WhatsApp’s calling feature was introduced to the world, the pleas of telecom companies have become louder.
According to TRAI, as of December 2014, WhatsApp topped the messaging application market with 52 per cent of all users using OTT messaging services in India, followed by Facebook Messenger with 42 per cent, Skype with 37 per cent and WeChat with 26 per cent share.
“The (SMS) messaging traffic fell (in India) from 5,346 million in June 2013 to 4,367 million in June 2014, a decline of 18.3 per cent. This decrease can be attributed almost entirely to an increase in traffic of OTT messaging apps,” TRAI said. Premier telecom companies like Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular Limited have pointed to a significant drop in their messaging and value added services revenue as a part of the total revenue.
But net neutrality campaigners were not convinced.
“The internet is that one place where freedom of speech still means something. We simply can’t let a group of elected leaders and billionaires make it their stomping ground, can we,” asked Rudraksh MK, a techie and a data scientist based in Bengaluru.
“The thing about telecom companies is that their aims are simple enough – money. For them, charging for specific services/platforms makes a lot of financial sense – imagine, paying 20 bucks to access Facebook, another 15 to access Twitter, maybe 40 to access Wikipedia. So now, instead of paying one lump sum every month for internet usage, I’m paying by specific items – adding all that up can lead to insane profits,” he added.
Whether net neutrality will come into effect or not cannot be said as of now. It is still some time away or might not even happen. For now, the debate essentially surrounds the consultation paper introduced by TRAI which seeks views of users by April 24 and then counter-comments by May 8.
(With PTI inputs)