In a bid to ensure that netizens continue to have free and fair access to the internet, the government recently approved the principles of net neutrality in India. Aruna Sundararajan, telecom secretary, said, “All recommendations of the Trai on net neutrality have been accepted. Its core principles will be followed except in the case of critical services where you need to prioritise certain kinds of traffic.”
Till today, India has no laws governing net neutrality. Even though the internet had been neutral and unregulated since 1998, in 2006, TRAI had invited opinions regarding the regulation of net neutrality from various telecom industry bodies and stakeholders. The concept of network neutrality comes from the idea that the users mobile, cable, or phone internet connection should provide access to all websites and online traffic in ‘neutral’ and ‘equal’ manner, without giving priority to any other website. In simpler terms, Net Neutrality is the Internet’s guiding principle that “preserves our right to communicate freely online”. The issue has left the telecom service providers (TSP) and the over-the-top (OTT) players in India at loggerheads.
The debate over net neutrality started way back in December 2014 when Bharti Airtel decided to charge users extra for Internet calls rolling back its plan after drawing widespread criticism. It then launched the Airtel Zero platform which provided free access to certain websites that paid for the service.
In January 2017, Trai released its most comprehensive consultation paper on much debated net neutrality issue. In the paper Trai stresses on the importance of a broader understanding of net neutrality among authorities and seeks to bring transparency in the way people access internet services.
Net neutrality has become a bigger issue across the world as social media giants and mobile and internet providers seek greater control on delivery of content and services to customers. It is feared that handing out greater and unchecked control to them will lead to monopolies and situations of paid prioritization, both of which will stifle the start-up culture and new innovations.
The US, the world’s biggest internet economy, is yet to take a clear stand on the matter. In May, the US Senate voted in favour of keeping open-internet rules as it attempts to overturn regulator Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repeal net neutrality rules, something seen as difficult in view of challenges at the House of Representatives or the White House.
As per the recent conversation, under net neutrality, online access is unrestricted and non-discriminatory. The only exceptions are new and emerging services such as autonomous driving, tele-medicine or remote-diagnostic services, which may require prioritised internet lanes and faster-than-normal speeds. A committee will look into the possible exceptions for “critical services” which will also be defined keeping in view the basic tenets of net neutrality.
Based on the Trai recommendations, the government will soon amend telecom licences to incorporate rules on net neutrality, including a bar on blocking or slowing down of content, while allowing fast lanes for only ‘critical’ services and keeping ‘content delivery networks’ out of their ambit.
Sundarajan also informed that categories of critical services that will be notified subsequently by the DoT will be kept out, in line with the international practice. A separate regime for critical services will be issued. Also, a committee, in consultation with Trai, will earmark critical services in a few months, but the government can’t take a rigid position on this as it’s a “very evolving framework”.
Going forward, the panel will also frame traffic management practices (TMPs) for telcos to ensure service quality, security of networks, emergency services, and implementation of court orders and government directions as long as they are transparent and the impact on users is declared.