Net Neutrality: "the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites."
For the past few months this had been a widely debated topic in India with Facebook's Free Basics campaign on one side, the average internet users on the other and the telecom operators and ISPs in the middle.
On 8th February, 2016 the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ((TRAI) issued a notification on the "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulation, 2016".
The TRAI order states that "no service provider shall shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content." Also "No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content: Provided that this regulation shall not apply to tariffs for data services over closed electronic communications networks, unless such tariffs are offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation."
So in effect, it has declared that the entire internet content is same, whether its a video on youtube, a news channel site, live scores site, a social media site or even this blog. No particular content can be promoted by telecom operators through special plans like zero charges for certain sites/apps while charging different amount for others. Although there are still some grey areas and some loopholes still need to be sorted out it was a first major notification in the net neutrality debate.
This notification has effectively stopped the Mark Zuckerberg's Free Basics campaign. Zuckerberg has been championing the cause of Free Basics to get more people on board the internet by providing certain websites free of costs (i.e. without any data charges). They had also conducted a major newspaper and billboard campaign for Free Basics. However the effort wasn't enough to covince TRAI or the net neutrality activists. Here is what Zuckerberg had to say in his Facebook post
"Everyone in the world should have access to the internet.
That's why we launched Internet.org with so many different initiatives -- including extending networks through solar-powered planes, satellites and lasers, providing free data access through Free Basics, reducing data use through apps, and empowering local entrepreneurs through Express Wi-Fi.
Today India's telecom regulator decided to restrict programs that provide free access to data. This restricts one of Internet.org's initiatives, Free Basics, as well as programs by other organizations that provide free access to data.
While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet.
Our work with Internet.org around the world has already improved many people's lives. More than 19 million people in 38 countries have been connected through our different programs.
Connecting India is an important goal we won't give up on, because more than a billion people in India don't have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that's why we're so committed to connecting them.
Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. That mission continues, and so does our commitment to India."
His intentions might be completely altruistic but Free Basics isn't cutting any ground with net neutrality activists. In fact the TRAI ruling has been welcomed all across. For those in doubt on the correctness of the ruling, here is a tweet from Tim Berners-Lee.
"Well done India! passes strong #netneutrality rules, stands up for open Web. See @webfoundation -> http://tiny.cc/ftmy8x #savetheinternet"
Coming from the man who built the world wide web, that should end the debate on Free Basics vs Net neutrality.
Now, the implications of this ruling. All existing data plans with prioritized access will go for a toss. Alongwith Free basics, Airtel Zero kind of services will also get shelved. This would lead to changes in the tariff plans by all telecom operators. Could be interesting times in the Indian telecom space where data and net speed are becoming the dominant sectors ahead of voice calls and messages.
Technology has been moving at a pace much faster than the regulations. This ruling by TRAI is a major step in ensuring net neutrality and keeping pace with the rapidly evolving connectivity needs.