It generated a lot of heat and controversy. And a fair bit of confusion as well, with different parties telling different versions. In fact, during the entire Net Neutrality debate, it seemed that while the general public had one definition of Net Neutrality, the regulator, TRAI, had another definition of it. For the general public in India, Net Neutrality meant that one website/service should not be given better/free access over another, but for the regulator, Net Neutrality meant that it was all right if one website is given free/better access over another as long as it was given across all telecom operators in a way such that telcos are not directly involved.
Net Neutrality outrage for Airtel
The whole Net Neutrality debate in India began with the rumored introduction of WhatsApp voice calling. Indian telecom operators had already seen their SMS revenue fade away because of WhatsApp and did not want the same to happen with voice. Airtel was the first operator to introduce VOIP packs, whereby subscribers were forced to recharge with VOIP packs in order to make calls via WhatsApp, Skype etc.
The move from Airtel resulted in a savage backlash. The entire media started complaining about it and termed it as a violation of Net Neutrality considering that Airtel was throttling a particular form of data (VOIP calls) by asking people to pay more for it. There was a lot of debate on Twitter regarding Airtel’s plan to charge for VOIP and ultimately the operator backtracked from its decision.
We are still not sure if everyone understood Net Neutrality. Most people were simply angry that Airtel was asking them to cough up more money for using WhatsApp and other VOIP applications. Even before Airtel had brought about the VOIP packs, many operators in India were providing dedicated WhatsApp and Facebook data recharges for years. When the operators had brought about the WhatsApp and Facebook recharges, there was absolutely no protest, even though these dedicated data packs gave an unfair advantage to WhatsApp and Facebook over others which – surprise, surprise – was also a violation of Net Neutrality.
Ultimately, the Facebook and WhatsApp data packs were removed from the market with the passage of Net Neutrality rules in February 2016. Some might feel that even though there might have been a violation of Net Neutrality earlier, such things would not be possible once these rules were in place. However, an incident that followed in September 2016 that made me wonder if the resistance against Airtel was indeed for Net Neutrality.
But not for Jio?
This incident was the Reliance Jio launch. When Jio launched its services in India, it said that voice calls would be free for life as long as someone subscribes to a data pack. Upon further clarification, it was revealed that Jio would not deduct the data used for VoLTE calls and calls made by its My Jio app. Technically speaking, Jio was zero rating its own voice call offerings which would put WhatsApp and other VOIP applications at a disadvantage. Why would anyone use WhatsApp calling when the same on Jio would result in no data deductions? This was a clear violation of Net Neutrality, but was there any outrage on this? Hardly any. Jio was the underdog in the Indian telecom sector and people were awestruck by its free services.
Now, assuming that Net Neutrality is why people were angry at Airtel then people should have directed an equal amount of anger as well as outrage at Jio as well. But that did not happen. On the contrary, people were happy that Jio was providing them free calls for life even if it was being provided in a manner that would put other VOIP apps at a disadvantage. Some would argue that VoLTE is a different technology than VOIP but even PSTN (the network used for 2G calls) is different from VOIP.
Freeing the world from Free Basics
Let’s leave aside Airtel and talk about Free Basics. Facebook’s Free Basics program first landed in India as internet.org whereby certain websites would be zero rated. Internet.org’s partner operator in India was only Reliance initially. Soon enough, Internet.org came under fire for violating Net Neutrality as only websites selected by Facebook were zero rated. In order to appease the critics, Facebook rebranded internet.org as Free Basics where along with other changes, any website could be a part of Free Basics as long as it met certain technical specifications.
However, the changes Facebook proposed for Free Basics did not help matters much, as it was still a violation of Net Neutrality. Soon, the regulator, TRAI, took up the issue of Net Neutrality and came up with a set of guidelines on February 8, 2016. These guidelines were cheered worldwide as something that would protect the Internet and its competitive spirit. Indeed, after the Net Neutrality guidelines came into effect, Free Basics was stopped in India and the dedicated Facebook and WhatsApp packs were also slowly removed. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the Indian Internet was the most neutral in the world.
Net Neutrality, TRAI Edition
There was one problem, though. The regulator’s definition of Net Neutrality was way different from the general definition of Net Neutrality. This became obvious in an interview with the TRAI chairman RS Sharma conducted by Factor Daily.
RS Sharma was crystal clear that TRAI has no problem with rich companies zero-rating their services across ALL telecom providers. If someone like Netflix has the financial power to zero-rate its service, even if it meant unfair playing ground for a small startup like Hooq, TRAI had no problem as it considered it to be a business issue and not a Net Neutrality one. The TRAI chairman’s clarification? “Which law can prevent giving free books or shirts or anything else to people who visit your website? That’s your business strategy. What are we saying is: can there be an architecture for this? The architecture may, in the end, not be useful at all. We are talking about a situation where the telcos don’t participate in an agreement or a disagreement at all,” he said in the interview referred to earlier.
The interview made it clear that TRAI was hardly bothered about competition amongst websites. The regulator was fine with Facebook or Google having an unfair advantage over others. What it wanted to make sure was that there was no unfair advantage to any particular telecom operator by zero rating certain content. So for example, if Airtel alone zero rates Netflix and has an advantage over other telecom operators, then it’s a problem for TRAI. On the other hand, if Netflix is zero rated by all the telecom operators in India, then it’s no problem at all.
The interview, however, did not invite the sort of reaction or outcry that had greeted Free Basics had. For a good reason, though. As I mentioned, ever since the Net Neutrality laws were passed in February 2016, the Indian Internet had been completely neutral and even though what the chairman had suggested in the interview was against Net Neutrality, there had been no recommendations by TRAI that violated Net Neutrality. TRAI had just floated a consultation paper on free data, the outcome of which was unknown.
TRAI’s Latest Free Data recommendations: check the fine print
However, the TRAI has recently released its recommendations for free data in India. These recommendations consist of providing 100 MB of free data per month to people in rural areas and a TSP agnostic platform. The cost of 100 MB of data would be reimbursed by the USOF fund. This is basically a fund which facilitates the roll-out of networks in hard-to-reach and economically unviable areas. The fund, in turn, is made up of contributions by telecom operators; generally, 3-5 percent of the telecom operator’s revenue needs to be put in the fund.
Now the free 100 MB data is hardly an issue. Users in rural areas can use the 100 MB as they deem fit every month. The problematic part of TRAI’s recommendation is the TSP (Telecom Service Provider) agnostic platform. TRAI wants certain aggregators which can provide free access to websites. TRAI has several rules for the aggregators such as that they should be registered and cannot pass their registration. TRAI wants the aggregators to be Telco agnostic. So for instance, if I have an aggregator that provides free access to certain news websites, my aggregator should be set up in such a manner that I have no direct dealing with any telecom operator and the user of any telecom operator can access my aggregator.
What TRAI does not specify is the kind of relationship that must be between the aggregator and the websites that it’s aggregating. From what I understand, aggregators are free to zero-rate any website or app they want. There is no mandate on aggregators to zero-rate ALL websites.
TRAI’s recommendations have validated a Free Basics-like model with the only condition being that it should be structured in such a way that it is available across all telecom operators and there be no relation between the operator and aggregator. Aggregators are free to zero-rate any websites they wish but for zero-rating, even these aggregators need to pay telecom operators some money. I am sure no telecom operator would zero-rate websites of aggregators without any monetary benefit in return. Now for the aggregator to be able to pay telecom operators, they need money from the websites they are zero-rating and obviously, the bigger websites would be in a better position to pay than the smaller ones.
Yet, there hardly seems to be any kind of protest or outrage over TRAI’s latest set of recommendations. Even though they are likely to be passed by DoT and then become law in the next few months.
If Net Neutrality was what people cared about, then there should have been an equal amount of protest over both Free Basics as well as the latest set of recommendations, but that’s hardly the case. If we really want Net Neutrality in India, we should be protesting the latest recommendations as well, and not restrict ourselves by picking and choosing targets like Facebook and Airtel.
Or has selfish interest neutralized Net Neutrality? I hope not. It deserves better.