Net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic be treated equally — is fundamental to our mission to deliver digital equality — a world where everyone has the same rights and opportunities online. Why? If dominant content providers can pay to have their traffic prioritised, it risks harming competition and innovation, while limiting freedom of expression. If governments block or censor content that they do not agree with, it hurts free speech and democracy.
Today, in partnership with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), the Web Foundation has made a submission to an important consultation on net neutrality in India. Responding to questions from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the Web Foundation and DEF have jointly made four key recommendations:
1) Consider introducing a no-fee basic data allowance
Today, mobile broadband penetration is India is estimated to be less than 10% (GSMA Intelligence Q4 2016). Addressing this challenge will require innovative interventions which should be encouraged by the government. However, we argue that interventions to provide access for low-income and/or marginalised communities must also adhere to net neutrality principles, as they should for all Indians. Previous attempts in India include zero-rating programmes which restricted users to a limited set of sites or services, and these proved controversial. Meanwhile, research by the Alliance for Affordable Internet has suggested such zero rating initiatives are not effective in bringing new users online, and that users would rather have free access to the whole internet, even if it is limited by time or data allocation. Our joint suggestion is for TRAI to explore ways to provide a basic monthly data allowance. Other countries, such as Colombia, are already experimenting with such policies: given the size of India’s market and the country’s global influence, the successful implementation of such an initiative could be world-leading and transformative.
2) Encourage TSPs to make detailed information available on important areas such as quality of service and network neutrality compliance— in open data formats wherever possible
In order for regulators, citizens and civil society to monitor progress and ensure traffic management practices abide by net neutrality guidelines, detailed information that can easily be analysed is needed. For this reason, we propose that TSPs be required to make detailed, technical filings with TRAI either quarterly or bi-annually, and to post the results on their websites too. Wherever feasible, this information should be released as open data — free for anyone to reuse or analyse — in order to maximise transparency and accountability.
3) Don’t ban paid service-specific data bundles — unless there is a relationship between mobile operators and content providers
We argue that application-specific traffic discrimination should not be allowed. However, one exception is the case of service-specific data bundles — where TSPs charge different rates for access to certain sites or applications. Such bundles can be a good way for operators to respond to customer demand and devise innovative ways for more people to connect and communicate affordably. As such, we recommend that they should be encouraged, with any complaints dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The caveats, of course, are if there is a commercial relationship between TSPs and the sites or applications included in the bundle or if the content is not available on a non-exclusive basis to all TSPs; in such cases, we believe that service-specific data bundles should not be allowed.
4) Consider creating a dedicated advisory committee on net neutrality — with representatives from government, business and civil society
It is clear that net neutrality is a vital issue. Preserving and enhancing it will help Indian entrepreneurs and established businesses alike, and can help millions more to connect affordably. Yet it is also a complex issue, which will continue to shift and evolve over time. For this reason, we recommend that TRAI considers establishing a dedicated advisory committee on net neutrality, made up of representatives from business, government, academia and civil society. One of the most important mandates of this committee would be to explore the implications of emerging technologies on the principles of network neutrality, which TRAI should revisit every two years to allow for agile policy design. We do not envision this body as one that can take actions in case of any violation of network neutrality. However, the committee would be able to make recommendations directly to TRAI.
The Web Foundation also made a submission to TRAI’s previous consultation on net neutrality in 2015, which can be accessed here.
The Digital Empowerment Foundation’s’ previous submissions can be accessed below:
- Submission on Consultation Paper on Differential pricing for Data Services
- Submission on Consultation Paper on OTT Services
- Submission on Consultation on Free Data Provision
- Submission on Pre-Consultation Paper on net Neutrality