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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression, Open Internet

Net Neutrality in India: the Start of Something Big

Something big is happening in India. While authorities in the United States and the European Union work to put the last big pieces of net neutrality regulation in place for their respective portions of the internet, the subcontinent of India begins its efforts to keep its rapidly expanding corner of the internet open and free. Although the country’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) released a report (PDF) on net neutrality last spring, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) recent Pre-Consultation on Net Neutrality was the country’s first request for public comment on how India should preserve the neutrality of its networks. As such, the questions in the Pre-Consultation are appropriately high-level, aimed at helping the TRAI get a sense of the size and shape of the issues. CDT anticipates further refinement of the issues as the TRAI pursues this worthy goal.

So why is this important? Consider this: India is the second most populous country on Earth, the most populous democracy, and already has more internet users than the US. India has the fastest growing telecom industry; ten years ago, less than 3% of Indians had access to the internet, while today roughly 35% of the population is connected. Even with only one in three Indians on the internet, they make up 13.5% of the world’s internet population. The development, adoption, and use of the internet in India will have profound effects on the future of the global internet.

As important as India is to the internet, the internet is just as important to Indians. Indians use internet access as a gateway to information and a way to connect to others, both near and far. The internet is unrivaled in its value as a platform for sharing ideas and expressing views, enabling users to reach their audiences on larger scales and at lower costs than ever before. These qualities, when combined with efficient search tools and trusted payment mechanisms, also make the internet an ideal forum for commerce for businesses of all sizes. Indeed, the benefits of connection to the internet, particularly as local and national adoption rates increase, are much the same anywhere on the planet.

As more and more Indians connect to and use the internet, the potential of these benefits will increase, both as a means of enhancing democratic ideals and developing the national economy. In this, the value of the internet for Indians depends on their ability to access all of its endpoints on equal terms. The way Indians access and use their internet connections, and the applications and services they choose, should be shaped and influenced according to their own interests, not those of their access provider. For users, the value of internet as a means of connecting to people and information decreases when access providers limit the availability or quality of access to some lawful services, applications, or content, but not others. User choice and experience – free from the influence or preferences of the access provider – is crucial to users’ desire and ability to freely exchange information. Thus, net neutrality is important for Indians’ access to information and freedom of expression.

For those wishing to offer goods or services in the internet marketplace, their success or failure should be determined by their merits, not their ability to pay for preferential treatment by access providers. When access providers treat the traffic for some applications or services better (or worse) than others, the value of the internet as a level playing field for competition decreases and it becomes a less appealing venue for small business and innovative start-ups. This, in turn, discourages the development of local and national offerings, while favoring those internet companies with sufficient resources to afford preferential treatment by access providers. Thus, net neutrality is important for the development of a robust and diverse internet economy in India.

The TRAI and the Indian DoT have recognized the value of the internet for India and the importance that its networks remain neutral, but the path towards regulations to ensure net neutrality as one aspect of an open internet for India likely will be contentious. Last year, the TRAI issued a consultation paper proposing a framework that would regulate and tax certain over-the-top (OTT) services, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application providers like Skype and WhatsApp. This proposal was heavily criticized as favoring India’s incumbent telecom providers while reducing the attractiveness of India as a potential market for OTT services generally. The TRAI is still considering responses to this consultation.

Earlier this year, the TRAI issued a regulation banning discriminatory tariffs (PDF) for data services. The language of this prohibition generally aims at commercial arrangements that charge different prices for data depending on the content or services accessed by customers, often referred to as “zero rating.” However, the ban was largely seen as a response to the introduction of, and subsequent public outcry over Facebook’s Free Basics (formerly program. The zero-rating ban, for better or worse, was India’s entre to net neutrality regulation.

Now, with the Pre-Consultation paper, India steps back to look at the larger questions involved with adopting net neutrality regulations. Five out of the six questions presented address major issues, including net neutrality’s core principles, traffic management, regulatory approach, national security, and customer privacy, with a catch-all as the sixth. That India is starting from a(n almost) clean slate is a momentous opportunity. CDT appreciates the TRAI’s initial high-level approach and thinks it wise to develop a fundamental understanding of the country’s values and goals before moving forward. CDT provided brief comments in response to the Pre-Consultation, and looks forward to taking part in the TRAI’s further development and refinement of its approach to preserving an open internet in India.