India’s Internet will be governed by the rules of net neutrality as the Telecom Commission has accepted the recommendations made by regulatory body TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Association of India). The net neutrality rules means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate against Internet content and services by blocking, throttling or granting them higher speed access.
India’s acceptance of Net Neutrality is a big victory for the open Internet movement. This is significant also because in the United States the Net Neutrality rules expired last month after the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted against them in November 2017. In the US, with no Net Neutrality, it is no longer illegal for ISPs to slow, block or offer “paid prioritisation” to some websites as long as they disclose these practices. This reversed the initial pro-Net Neutrality rules from 2015.
So what does the Telecom Commission’s acceptance of Net Neutrality rules for India mean?
According to TRAI’s Net Neutrality rules, first recommended back in November 2017, discriminatory treatment of content is prohibited. What this means is that your ISP or internet provider cannot charge you extra for say watching videos on Netflix at a high-speed. The rules bar ISPs from creating high-speed data lanes, or charging extra for viewing certain kind of content on the web.
It also means that zero-rating packages like says a Facebook Free Basics, where certain content is provided for free like access to Facebook, also remain illegal in India. The recommendations had also noted, “the use of Internet should be facilitated in such a manner that it advances the free speech rights of citizens, by ensuring plurality and diversity of views, opinions, and ideas.”
What is out of purview of Net Neutrality?
However, the Telecom Commission has kept some mission critical applications or services like remote surgery and autonomous cars out of the purview of this framework. TRAI in its recommendations had also kept CDN or content delivery networks out of the purview of Net Neutrality.
CDNs allow a telecom company to deliver content on their network, without accessing public internet. Players like Airtel, Reliance Jio are doing this. In order to access the content provided by them, the user has be on the respective network.
The regulator had also recommended restrictions on service providers from entering into agreements which lead to discriminatory treatment of content on the Internet. When it comes to Internet of Things (IoT), ) TRAI said it “should not be specifically excluded from the scope of the restrictions on nondiscriminatory treatment.”
Specialised services are only exempt from Net Neutrality rules if “such services are not usable or offered as a replacement for Internet Access Services.” Still, the recommendations from TRAI also allow for “reasonable traffic management practices and certain other legitimate purposes” provided they are transparent interventions.
Any violation of the core principles of net neutrality would involve a two-stage process of review and appeal. TRAI would also continue to regulate traffic, and any new tariff would be tested against the principles of Net Neutrality
Net Neutrality: A timeline of events
November 2017: In November 2017, TRAI had recommended its thoughts on Net Neutrality and upheld the basic principles that ISPs, TSPs (Telecom Service Providers) must treat all data packets the same, and not discriminate on the basis of content.
Discriminatory pricing, throttling, blocking on the basis of content was not to be allowed, according to TRAI’s recommendations. Fast-laning of any apps, websites or web services was also seen as against the principle of Net Neutrality. The recommendations followed a consultation process that lasted for over a year. “No one owns the Internet, so it should be open and accessible to everyone. Service providers have the power of becoming gatekeepers of the Internet but they should not indulge in doing so with this important platform,” TRAI chairman R S Sharma had told The Indian Express at the time.
January 2017: TRAI had invited public views on the net neutrality issue to finalise a framework. “The purpose of this second stage of consultation is to proceed towards the formulation of final views on policy or regulatory interventions, where required, on the subject of NN,” TRAI had said.
February 2016: TRAI issued its ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016’ order which was seen as the first victory for Net Neutrality in India. The order declared all data services which provided access to some websites for free as illegal.
The order said that TSPs or service providers cannot charge differently for data services based on content. The order effectively ended Facebook’s Free Basics ambitions in India and also made Airtel Zero or any special data packs for a particular app or website as illegal.
July 2015: The Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT’s) Net Neutrality report was issued, which said that the core principles of NN had to “adhered”. It also said that a user’s rights on the Internet need to be protected.
April 2015: The issue of Net Neutrality gained popularity in India after Facebook planned to launch and push its Free Basic program in the market. Teleco Airtel also planned to launch something similar called Airtel Zero in India. Internet activists opposed these, calling them a blatant violation of Net Neutrality. The issue would then rage on for most of 2015.