Net Neutrality: Do we really need to Defend Internet Freedom in India?

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By Tech Desk

Web users in India hadn’t even heard of a concept known as Net neutrality few weeks ago, but now everyone is talking about this topic and wants to debate on this. We try to explain how it all started and what industry thinks about it now.

What is Net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the Internet’s guiding principle: It preserves our right to communicate freely online. This is the definition of an open Internet. Net neutrality is the principle that data on the Internet is moved blindly and impartially, without regard to content, destination or source.

When was the first time when people started to talked about it?
In May 2014, FCC (Federal Communications Commission of USA) Chairman Tom Wheeler released a plan that would have allowed companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to discriminate online and create pay-to-play fast lanes.
Thanks to the huge public and political outcry, Wheeler shelved his original proposal, and on Feb. 4, 2015, he announced that he would base new Net neutrality rules on Title II of the Communications Act, giving Internet users the strongest protections possible.
The FCC approved Wheeler’s proposal on Feb. 26, 2015. This is a watershed victory for activists who have fought for a decade to protect the open Internet.

How it all started in India?
In India, telecom companies recently have been making good profits, as India grew to 800 million mobile phone users. During this time, they have largely focused on selling voice minutes – while at the back end they have been using voice over internet protocol (or VOIP) to connect with other telcos and deliver calls using the Internet. And given that the cost of VOIP is a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional voice calls they were charging. But when WhatsApp and Skype and Google Hangouts, started to offer consumers the same voice calls delivered at Internet prices, direct to their handsets, the telcos got worried as their margins started eroding. So, now the telcos want to charge for the Internet differently, based on how you use it.

Mobile operators like Vodafone, Airtel, Idea, etc are trying to pressurize the Indian government to regulate the internet. Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) is going to decide if India should have open and equal access to Internet.

What will change if it is implemented?

  • You can be charged separately for using WhatsApp, Skype, etc even if you have paid for the Internet data pack.
  • Mobile operators will also be able to regulate the speed of Internet sites, which means we may be forced to use the sites that they choose for us.

In just a few days, the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) is going to decide if India should have open and equal access to Internet.

Industry’s opinion on Net neutrality:

Mr. Vinod Kumar, MD, SatcomInfotech
satcom_vinod“We all know the old adage ‘All men are Equal’ but in practice ‘Some are more Equal than others.’ So it is no surprise that the principle of treating all Internet traffic equally is at threat now. Net neutrality is an absolute must for any innovation and for allowing the consumer to make an informed choice.
Flipkart has also realized this by withdrawing themselves from the Airtel Zero services and soon it will dawn on all the ISPs that you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. Open Internet today in a democratic country like ours is no different from having freedom to breathe air in an open space without any restrictions. In a country like ours with millions of Internet users, we are already struggling and jostling for bandwidth. Internet-based services, apps, etailing, delivery and payment platforms, etc are the future. Charging the end consumers for using these apps will discourage them from using these services and will only bring technology and innovation to ground zero. We have enough instances of bullying by the government and the political bodies on how the Internet must be used and don’t want to give the right to any service provider to decide what information needs to be accessed. The ISPs are also looking at differential pricing for accessing data and Internet services but their revenue realization should come from data volume and not from the differential charges on the Internet services that are used. Last, the Internet alone has contributed to many brilliant innovations, ideas and business models which have not only led to consumer delight but also contributed in one way or the other to country’s development. Most of these have come from small start-ups and not from the traditional giants in the industry. These small ventures will not have the financial muscle to sign up for ‘zero services’ with the telcos till the time they grow to the size of a Flipkart, thereby killing the idea in its bud. Having said all this, once again thanks to Internet, we are all aware of our right to freedom of choice and expression and at the end of the day, the consumer will ensure that Net neutrality prevails in the long run.”gajsheild_sonit-jain

Mr.Sonit Jain, CEO, GajShield
“Ending Net neutrality will squeeze out start-ups who will have to pay distributors to offer their apps at the same level as the larger players. A few will monopolize the services. Internet was developed to provide free and fair access to all. Limiting this will kill innovation and prove to be a major hurdle to the growth of the Indian economy.”

adata_richard-tanMr.Richard Tan, MD & Director, ADATA Technology India Pvt Ltd
In our view, it is totally unfair to put any condition on usage of any type of service on the Internet. Today, Internet is just not for entertainment but has become a growth engine for businesses. Putting any condition on usage would jeopardize the businesses and overall the economy would also have a negative impact.
Yes, surely putting any condition on the type of content the Net user consumes would lead to data for start-up businesses to be blocked as they may not have deep pockets to spend heavily on the Net as compared to the already existing businesses – which is against the principal of organic growth.
In the Indian context wherein there is a growing intolerance in political and religious matters, this can also go on to be a big negative impacting issue. Government should take a clear stand and involve all the relevant parties and come out with clear strategy on Net neutrality.
Restricting data does not seem to directly impact our segment, i.e. storage, but looking at the larger prospect of economy and business growth—wherein ecommerce is a vital engine for growth and also an important vehicle for ADATA business—we recommend to ISPs not to go ahead on this.
The government’s role should be to bring consensus on this issue among all the concerned stakeholders and to bring in clarity at the earliest so that the businesses are not hampered and economy keeps growing.

Ashok Kumar, MD & CEO, RAH Infotech
rahinfotech_ashok-kumar“The fact that made the Internet such a revolution is that the users have been able to use it at their own prerogative. If the service providers try to mould the rules, it would hamper the freedom and undermine the value Internet holds today.”

“Anti-Net Neutrality would hurt the consumers as the access to certain services would require them to pay. Moreover, this would also affect the start-up community of India as smaller organizations would perish amidst the big payers signing up with the telecom operators.”
Another important issue is that a major chunk of Indian netizens is from the middle class and remote areas who would be adversely impacted if Net neutrality is lost.”

Statement from Airtel
airtel_logoAirtel fully supports the concept of Net Neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform – Airtel Zero. It is a not a tariff proposition but an open marketing platform that:
1.Allows app or content providers to offer their services on a toll free basis to their customers who are on our network.
2.Such customers whether on a data pack or not will therefore be able to access these toll free services free of charge.
3.No site, whether on the toll free platform or not under any circumstances, is blocked, throttled or provided any form of preferential access.
4.The toll free platform is open to all content providers on a completely non-discriminatory basis and operates on the same principle as 1-800 toll free voice services.
The statement made by Flipkart regarding their decision not to offer toll free data service to their customers is consistent with our stand that Airtel Zero is not a tariff proposition. It is merely an open platform for content providers to provide toll free data services. The platform remains open to all companies who want to offer these toll free data services to their customers on a completely non-discriminatory basis.

Sharda Tickoo, Product Marketing Manager, Trend Micro
trendmicro_sharda“The concept of Net neutrality is built on the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination or source. By looking into users’ Internet communications, ISPs may breach the existing rules on the confidentiality of communications, which is a fundamental right that must be carefully preserved.
To ensure smooth functioning and safeguarding user’s data, there should be ‘satisfactory policy’ that ensures ISPs do not violate privacy rights through activity monitoring. The inspection practices must be legitimate and, in some cases, should require user consent. The data protection safeguards, such as purpose limitation and data security standards, will need to be determined.
Trend Micro can help provide services that can be leveraged by ISPs which ensure that the Internet services delivered to end users are free from any malicious content.”

creative_ketanMr. Ketan C Patel, CEO, Creative Peripherals & Distribution Pvt Ltd
In a democratic country every person has the right of speech; freely express himself/herself unless it does not hurt a specific community. In the world of Internet, there are various modes of communication. As far as the above criterion is maintained, there should not be different charges for these expressions when the medium used is Internet!
Internet is a medium where everyone can share their feelings. It helps an individual refine, share, develop his thoughts about a topic, product, services, etc which improves with repeated interactions on the web. A tool so vital to life should not be subjected to unfair restrictions. All modes of communication on the Internet should be treated equally.

indusface_ashish-tandonAshish Tandon, Chairman & CEO, Indusface
“It will kill the basic premise of Internet being an open and level playing field. To put it in simple terms, without Net neutrality, we won’t be able to access Internet the way we have been accessing all these years. Net neutrality is important in the Indian context as our nation is the breeding ground for most startups and the fact that the TSPs and ISPs could be in a position to ensure some sites are served faster than others will affect innovation and job opportunities.”
“The Internet industry has grown because it enjoyed freedom so far and anti-Net neutrality will affect the phenomenal growth that Internet has seen over the years.”

Mr. Govind Rammurthy, MD& CEO, eScan
eScan_govind“Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality or Net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, app, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. The term was coined in 2003 by Tim Wu, media law professor, Columbia University, as an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier.” (As mentioned in Wikipedia).
Since the very beginning of Internet, the idea of ‘Open Internet’ has always been promulgated and has always been instrumental in seeding various inventions and innovations that we have been able to see till date. Not just the idea of Open Internet, but also the thought of Free speech has been fiercely advocated. However, the business paradigm for telcos shifted and they started feeling the pinch in the most undesired areas, i.e. the Data which travels through their Dumb Pipes.

Dumb Pipes are the physical cables which carry the data and they have no computation ability and it is only the endpoints that are intelligent. For example, we can state that when there are two or more involved in a written conversation, the medium of language should be common to all the participants, however, the person involved in transporting these messages, i.e. the courier, need not have the knowledge of deciphering the contents. In this case, the Third Entity is the physical cables which do not understand what is being transmitted and received but nonetheless has the inherent role of facilitating the transmission. The role of cables is only ensuring that the delivery of data takes place between Point A and Point B. In case our example, the courier company should charge with respect to the weight and size of the parcel and not with respect to the contents. Content should not be the concern of the courier company.

Telcos, until recently, have been acting like couriers, but now it seems like some of them want a larger share of the data pie by and taking control of the end-points and by simply categorizing the data-as-a-service by what is being offered, how it is being offered, who can access this data, etc.
In simpler terms, let us for the sake of argument, categorize a few of the services as follows:
Streaming Video: Youtube, Skype’s Video Calling, etc
Streaming Audio: Online Radio Channels, Viber’s Internet Calls, etc

The fact is telcos have always been charging for Internet access based on the bandwidth used and had various financial plans for their customers based on bandwidth usage. They also came up with rate-limiting, i.e. offering slower speeds when the Fair Usage policy terms were violated. This means that the customer ended up utilizing more data in terms of MBs and GBs than what was provisioned. So far so good, as telcos along with courier companies were on par with each other as far providing a neutral service is concerned.

The present day marvels of technology are such you can avail the services for free while the same services can be offered by someone else for a small price as Internet offers innovations and also choices to its users. However, all this may change with TRAI putting forward its views in the form of a consultation paper.

If the telcos and TRAI, along with the Government of India, have their way, then everyone of us will be charged for the services available through Internet, which we have been accessing and utilizing free of charge so far. Now is the time we all fight for the Net neutrality with greater determination.

TRAI’s consultation paper encourages Pay-Per-Use Internet, however, aren’t we been paying for Internet Access? This is where everything changes – You pay for the various services Internet has to offer, e.g. if you use WhatsApp – pay different amount, for Skype something else, to use Google Search pay a small amount and so on. However, in case your ISP has collaboration with BING, then you might get BING for free but you might be charged for accessing Google.
A-La-Carte was a concept of Pay-Per-View Cable Television Channels, however, we may very soon find this seeping into our Broad-Band Bills.

Internet penetration in India is at 20%, which due to huge population, amounts to a big number compared to many countries, however, India has been lagging way behind with respect to Bandwidth and Speed.
On the other hand, financially, telcos have been highly stable when we look at Profitability vs Debt ratio. The only concern for telcos is that using of various apps by users until now is having a negative impact on their finances which are generated by SMS and International Calling. They also talk of their other pain-points like –licensing cost, adaptability and upgrading to newer technology. Solution for the problems faced by telcos should be adaptability, but not burdening the customers with new charges.

TRAI in their consultation paper has touched upon privacy and data interception. Privacy laws have a very feeble existence in India and a case related to real-time Data Sharing between the Government of India and Blackberry has been referenced in the backdrop of 26/11. We believe that interception of data for ensuring national security needs to be exercised with caution and it is the duty of the telcos and every organization to provide such information to the concerned authority. However, blanket-wide interception is surely a big NO as it affects the privacy in general and increases the concomitant need for stricter privacy laws. Telcos, on the other-hand, need to provide such mechanisms but not at the cost of burdening the customers.

When the bandwidth prices are on par with global standards, imposing such restrictions just makes it worse for a country which is yet to see itself on par with other developed countries especially while providing a better network.
We have just one question – Is providing Internet access to the citizens of India a privilege, a necessity or a duty? And interestingly, necessity is one aspect of life which has always been exploited commercially by the associated providers.

eset_pankaj-jainMr. Pankaj Jain, Country Head, ESET India
“When we have freedom of speech, freedom of following a religion, freedom to get education, it is not fair to discriminate the Internet contents. I would consider such discrimination as a basic violation of citizens’ rights. TRAI is there to censor the contents and ESET is there to take care of all internet security solutions. Telecom operators and ISP should not restrain users to visit only a few websites. Every Internet user should be free to explore the Internet and websites to decide what is best for him/her. Think, if Net neutrality was absent a few years ago, we might not be knowing or using networking sites and apps like Facebook and WhatsApp; and Flipkart, Snapdeal, etc would have probably closed down or charged much higher for operations. Let’s give fair chance to all startups and let users decide what’s good. I urge ISPs, not to restrict new talent and ideas. ESET will protect users and will wholeheartedly support Net neutrality and freedom.”

Shibu Paul, Regional Sales Director – India, ME & SEA, Array Networks
array_shibu-paul“I am a strong advocate of Net neutrality. Openness is the essence of the Internet and consumers must have the liberty to choose what (Content), when (Priority) and how (Quality of service) they want to use their data. Internet is one of the most influential, and in many cases, a special and effective form of communication medium. We must ensure that no one monopolizes the Internet and its openness is preserved. Else, the IT industry and society at large will get affected sooner or later.

If the Internet isn’t a neutral place, ISPs and TSPs will be in a position to bar certain data from your device and decide what data you can access from the Internet. They should not be allowed to determine how people use their services. For ensuring this, robust guidelines and regulations must be put in place so that ISPs and TSPs are not in a position to selectively PUSH data to consumers the way that monetarily benefits them. In addition, service providers should focus on providing SLAs agreed with customers.

The Internet is a great tool that India can largely benefit from. Array’s devices help service providers to enhance and accelerate the performance of Internet services and prioritize services. First, a huge investment is required in the Internet infrastructure, which should be taken up by the government before we start debating on Net neutrality in this country. India is one of the first few countries to have a formal IT Act which was created in 2000. The government should constitute a dialogue with stakeholders, define boundaries and create concrete rules and regulations around the Internet.”

At last
We have seen a huge response in support of Net neutrality drive in India and we are sure that the government will see the larger picture in framing the right policy for India that ensures that no burden is put on the pockets of the users and freedom of the users is preserved.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Take on net nutrality
Over the past week in India, there has been a lot written about Internet.org and net neutrality. I’d like to share my position on these topics here for everyone to see.First, I’ll share a quick story. Last year I visited Chandauli, a small village in northern India that had just been connected to the internet. In a classroom in the village, I had the chance to talk to a group of students who were learning to use the internet. It was an incredible experience to think that right there in that room might be a student with a big idea that could change the world — and now they could actually make that happen through the internet. The internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.

I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities.
In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity.

This is why we created Internet.org, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries,Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging. Internet.org lowers the cost of accessing the internet and raises the awareness of the internet’s value. It helps include everyone in the world’s opportunities.

We’ve made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org. In India, we’ve already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana. And we just launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today.

We’re proud of this progress. But some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.

We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.

But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.

Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.

Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected.

Every person in the world deserves access to the opportunities the internet provides. And we can all benefit from the perspectives, creativity and talent of the people not yet connected.We have a historic opportunity to connect billions of more people worldwide for the first time. We should work together to make that happen now.