The NDA government will not compromise on net neutrality as long as it is in power, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.
The minister was replying to a calling attention motion moved by Trinamool Congress spokesperson Derek O’Brien on the issue, which saw members across party lines unite in favour of keeping the Internet freely accessible. They also questioned the motives of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) for initiating a suo motu consultation on net neutrality apparently at the behest of telecom majors. Several members also used the opportunity to voice personal grievances against telecom service providers.
“The government stands for ensuring non-discriminatory access to the Internet for all citizens, and the current debate on net neutrality should be seen from this perspective, while resolving the issues harmoniously with constitutional and economic principles. The government agrees with the viewpoint that blocking and deliberately slowing down/speeding up of lawful content on the Internet should not be allowed, and customers should have unrestricted access to all lawful content on the Internet,” Prasad said.
Earlier, calling the government’s attention to the contentious issue, O’Brien dismissed Prasad’s statement as something akin to a “Wikipedia entry on the Internet and Digital India”. He also took the government to task over the TRAI’s decision to make public the email addresses of 10 lakh people, who had written to the regulator in favour of net neutrality. The addresses were eventually taken down following public outcry, but only after they remained online for 36 hours, he said.
“The BJP is very good with trolls. Sometime back, a BJP leader told me, we created the social media now it is trying to hit us back. If the matter is not dealt with, it will hit you back like an Australian boomerang,” he said, taking a dig at the ruling coalition’s online prowess — something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be very passionate about.
The net neutrality issue was also raised in the Lok Sabha recently by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
On Tuesday, Congress’s M V Rajeev Gowda, trying to drive home the point that net neutrality was essential for all sections of society, gave the example of a net savvy farmer who, during a consultation with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, urged the government to use Google maps to assess crop damage and inform affected farmers through WhatsApp.
He also raised doubts about repeated assertions by Prasad that the government was the last word on policy matters, asking if that stance compromised TRAI’s independence as a regulatory body. Prasad gave a strong rebuttal to that query by pointing out that the TRAI Act had been brought in 1997 — when the UPA was in power — and the relevant section of the law, which gives government the authority to decide on policy matters, had been a part of it from its inception.
Cutting across party lines, members equated net neutrality with the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression and asked whether the government would consider bringing a legislation to give it a sound basis.
Prasad said the government would take a call on the matter after TRAI comes out with its recommendations. He also made the government’s displeasure known at the statement of the TRAI chairman that the controversy was the result of a tussle between two corporates. “Regulators should avoid public statements; they should speak through their recommendations and reports,” he said.