Net Neutrality has been a contentious issue for a while now. The Net Neutrality debate started earnestly in the US ever since Verizon started slowing down Netflix on its FIOS broadband network. This led to a huge uproar on the issue of Net Neutrality, which ended with the then FCC chairman Tom Wheeler reclassifying Internet service providers as Title 2 service providers. This paved the way to super strong Net Neutrality rules. However, it is widely expected that the current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, would replace the current Net Neutrality rules with much weaker ones.

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The Net Neutrality debate in India

Just like Netflix started the Net Neutrality debate in the US, the Net Neutrality debate in India was started by a popular app as well,i.e., WhatsApp Messenger. When WhatsApp introduced the voice calling feature on its app, Airtel decided to charge for VoIP related data separately. People were furious at Airtel’s attempt to make extra money by charging for VoIP data separately and used Net Neutrality as a tool in their fight against the operator. I use the term “tool” over here because even Jio does not count the data used in the Jio 4G Voice app which technically amounts to a violation of Net Neutrality. However, no one seems bothered about it.

Following the public outcry, Airtel decided to revoke the VoIP plans that it had introduced in the market. However, the Net Neutrality debate in India stirred up once again when Facebook decided to launch its campaign in India that provided free access to Facebook and a select few websites that partnered with Facebook. Facebook decided to rebrand its effort as Free Basics, but that did not help either. Finally, the telecom regulator of India, TRAI, released its recommendation prohibiting differential data pricing, which meant Facebook had to abandon the Free Basics program.

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The definition of Net Neutrality in India has yet to be agreed upon. In fact, the regulator has held consultations upon it but is yet to come out with a firm list of recommendations. As of now, the core tenets of Net Neutrality which include things like prohibiting zero rating of data, no fast lanes, and no blocking, are yet to be violated in a significant manner by any telecom operator in India.

“Hello JioPhone, this is Net Neutrality calling”

Jio launched with much fanfare in India on September 5, 2016, and is almost going to complete one year of operations. During this period, Jio took the entire Indian telecom market by storm. The company made 1 GB/day the norm in an industry where 1 GB/month was the norm. The company also reduced data rates so much so that on an average, most people on Jio paid nothing for the first six months and only Rs 100/month or so afterward.

At its 2017 AGM, Jio made yet another blockbuster announcement: the Jio Phone. The Jio Phone comes preloaded with a number of Jio apps, is locked to the Jio SIM, runs an OS controlled by Jio and comes with an app store on board as well. However, the very fact that the Jio Phone is pre-loaded with Jio apps and is locked to the Jio SIM on an OS and app store controlled by Jio means that Jio apps have an inherent advantage over third party apps. Some people are now calling the Jio Phone as a violation of “Net Neutrality.” In my opinion, this is incorrect. Jio’s control over the Jio Phone is not a violation of Net Neutrality.

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The Jio Phone is supposed to come on board with an app store, and as of yet there is nothing to suggest that Jio might unfairly discriminate against third party apps on the phone, but even if it does, this cannot be termed as a violation of Net Neutrality. Jio is using the Jio Phone as a platform for its data services and home grown apps. Any company that owns a platform uses it to its advantage, and this has been well established in technology right since the IBM/Microsoft days.

Have platform, will discriminate…oops…leverage

Microsoft used Windows as a platform to sell its entire Office suite of products and gave Internet Explorer an unfair advantage over Netscape. Intel’s dominance over the x86 platform has been well documented, and despite licensing it to AMD, Intel still remains the king of CISC processors. Apple used iOS to block Google Maps and forced everyone to use Apple Maps instead for a brief period of time. Google’s Android does not allow ad blockers on the Play Store because Google’s core business model relies on ads. Amazon still does not sell Chromecasts or Apple TV on its website because it has its own Fire TV/ Fire Stick to promote. It is only now that Apple has finally started allowing Amazon Prime Video on the Apple TV.

All the examples mentioned above describe how tech companies have used their control over the platforms they own in order to block competition. In such a scenario, if Jio uses the Jio Phone as a platform to block the competition, can anyone even object?

The laws of Net Neutrality or at least the commonly agreed laws state that telecom operators shall not discriminate against data that travels on their network. Nowhere is it written that telecom operators also need to be impartial towards competition if they happen to own their own platforms. So while it would be reasonable for someone to expect that Jio does not zero rate websites/apps or slow down websites/apps, it would be absolutely unreasonable for someone to expect that Jio remains fair on the Jio Phone as well which is not a part of the core Jio network in all honesty.

On the other hand, if someone is advocating that the Jio Phone should be monitored to make sure that it does not unfairly discriminate against third party apps then we must also advocate for Google to start allowing ad blockers on the Play Store or ask Apple to allow people to set apps of their choice as their defaults. In other words, someone advocating for the Jio Phone to be monitored would indirectly be advocating for the entire tech industry to be monitored as well, which would put the entire free market dynamics into jeopardy.

Net Neutrality: more theory than practice?

The Jio Phone in a way goes onto show that even though Net Neutrality is good in theory, in reality, things would always be unequal. One could make sure through rules and regulations that the data carried on telecom networks are treated equally by ISPs, but ensuring that the platforms where the said data is consumed are also equal will not be possible. In fact, the entire business model of companies like Google and Facebook is based upon inequality. A big company can muscle in and buy all the top ad slots on Google search for a particular keyword thereby muscling out a smaller startup. Similarly, a big company can buy loads of ads on Facebook and hijack your newsfeed even if your friend has liked the page of a smaller competitor.

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When a big company pays for the top ad slots for a particular keyword on Google Search, their “relative” ranking in search results is better than others, just as how in the absence of Net Neutrality a big company could pay an ISP and makes its site load faster “relative” to others. If one is to ensure absolute equality, then not only must they make sure that ISPs treat all data equally but even Google and other platforms on the Internet rank all data organically on the basis of quality/merit alone without allowing anyone to “buy” said ranking.

The same is the case for Jio. Even though we can expect Jio to not zero rate its own apps, or slow down other apps on its network, there is nothing that stops Jio from favoring its own app on the Jio Phone or putting third party apps at a disadvantage

Platforms have forever been unfair. Singling out the Jio Phone, in this case, is unfair. The Jio Phone in a way helps us question what exactly is it that we are fighting for in the name of “Net Neutrality.” Are we fighting for equality? Because that has never been present on platforms and there is no reason why Jio Phone should be any different. Or do we feel that it is the sole duty of telecom operators alone to treat everyone equally, even on platforms that are not part of the core telecom network like the Jio Phone?

The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of this publication.

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