TILF Think Tank™ Report: The Economics of Net Neutrality
The Indian Legal Foundation (“TILF”) organized a strategic think tank session, wherein the participants debated and deliberated on several important aspects of the Net Neutrality. TILF Think Tank™ session titled as ‘The Economics of Net Neutrality”, was held at India Habitat Center on July 17, 2015. Attended by several leading luminaries and scholars, the session turned out to be a powerful platform to voice optimism and challenges in regulating the Internet in India.
Moderated by Mr. Mike Rana, Author & Software Engineer, the Think Tank session was blessed by all stakeholders, Government Officials, Politicians, Corporates, NGOs, Law Firms and Startups – all of whom were seeing Net Neutrality from different angles and perspective. Only a day before of the think tank was to meet, DoT came out publicly with its much awaited recommendations on Net Neutrality. This blew off the suspense on what TRAI and DoT were thinking and planning on Net Neutrality. The lines of demarcation were drawn and the room had proponents and opponents debating global policies on Net Neutrality.
The context of DoT’s recommendation on Net Neutrality was clear at outset, and participants were convinced about the overall recommendations favoring Net Neutrality in India. The six-fold DoT recommendations highlighted by the participants were;
1) Keeping over-the-top (OTT) messaging service of WhatsApp unregulated, but at the same time voice over internet protocol – VoIP or voice calls (provided by apps like WhatsApp, Viber, Skype) within India can be charged separately. These recommendations sounded favorable to Indian Telecom companies demanding a level playing field and sighting revenue losses for them;
2) The DoT panel did not recommend any extra fees for social media buttons (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc).
3) There was no view on zero rating and leaving this sector for TRAI to decide and regulate.
4) Also, the panel recommended that ISPs cannot resort to application-specific traffic control, wherein they spare the time sensitive applications and performing congestion control on time insensitive applications. The Dot panel, recommends treating all IP traffic in the same manner.
5) The DoT panel came heavily on Facebook’s Internet.org, criticizing it for violating net neutrality norms. Internet.org is a partnership between Facebook and few companies that plans to bring affordable access of selected Internet services to less developed countries.
6) Last and not the least, the participants struggled to see recommendations on the implementation aspects of Net Neutrality in India. Who and how will we deal with violations of Net Neutrality in India.
The Think Tank Event was presided over by Shri Tarun Vijay, Member of Parliament (Uttrakhand), who is among the most vocal proponents of Free Internet in India and has equated net neutrality to Human Rights of Digital Age. “Net Neutrality is core and essential to the government program on Skill Development, Digital India and Make-In-India. Government and Indian parliament is committed to Net Neutrality. Any apprehension on recent DoT recommendation will be debated and government will fight for democracy of Internet” said Shri Tarun Vijay. In a very simple language, Mr. Tarun Vijay explained the differential charging propagated by opponents of Net Neutrality – “it is tantamount to a passenger traveling via Indian Railways and being charged separately for Railway Ticket, using Platform, using lavatory, carrying more than 1 bag or getting a window seat, etc. He believes that it will be a farce on Indian consumers if Telecom Companies start charging separately for each little service available on the Internet and differential pricing /accessibility to Internet will certainly work against the Government vision of empowering rural India with Digitization.
“In order that e-governance benefits maximum number of people and reaches rural areas in India, the cardinal principle on Net Neutrality needs to be adapted and enforced. We cannot afford rich people Internet and poor people Internet” articulated Mr. Ram Sahai, Head, E-Governance, Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs.
While welcoming DoT recommendations, Mr. Rajendra Sharma, General Counsel, Samsung said “That there still needs to be a lot of work in creating an appropriate legislation around the governance of Internet in India. We need to incorporate best practices from EU and United States to ensure freedom of Internet in India”.
There were certainly voices that supported level playing field and mentioned that no absolute right enshrined in the Constitution of India. The Right to Practice Religion comes with duties towards maintaining public order and the Right to practice any vocation comes with duties against doing illegal or prohibited business. Similarly, the Free Use of Internet should be accompanied with level playing field, and should not result in unfair competition in the market. Dr. Pinaki Ghosh, Senior Advisor for IP, KPMG explained, “If a public road does not belong to anyone, it does not mean that people have a right to sleep in the middle of it, or that Government cannot levy charges using a toll gate. Every right has corresponding duty.”
Ms. Anubha Sharma, Senior Legal Counsel, Nokia Networks emphasized on fair and good regulations to govern Internet, “What industry needs is proper and clear regulations. It is always better to define the rules in advance on how various players over the Internet can interact with each other. Any good regulation is better than having no regulations at all”.
There was a very vocal start up community at the Think Tank Session, and they did seem to show displeasure on any regulations that has potential to subvert their ideas and Innovations. “Are we trying to put a black elephant, in a dark room having black colored walls”, asked Mr. Yogesh Kochhar, Former Director of Microsoft and now Founder@Poem Writers, a well-funded startup for Student Community. He further opined, “In the process of regulating net, we need to worry about startup business models, who cannot afford to ride on privilege pipes and traffic pre-defined by ISPs”.
“While we appreciate the overall intent of DoT report, but where does it talk about penalties, like we saw in the recent AT & T case in United States” asked Renu Jha, Chairperson, Government Affairs, The Indian Legal Foundation (“TILF”) – a New Delhi based Think Tank organization. Renu further mentioned, “We need to create a regulatory body with powers to impose fine and punishments. It is a necessary step towards creating and regulating Net Neutrality in India”
The Think Tank Event was also attended by Law Firm representatives from BMR LLP and Remfry & Sagar. They educated the audience and media on global developments in the area of Net Neutrality with a focus on FCC rules to regulate broadband Internet providers as a “public utility”, setting further stage for varied interpretations and legal challenges and suits being filed in coming months.
Whichever aspect you debated about the Net Neutrality, the participants took a sigh of relief that the Internet was envisioned to be democratic platform, and free from political interference. The Think Tank resonated well, “LONG LIVE THE NET”.