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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression, Open Internet

Net Neutrality: India Gets It

On Wednesday, India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) approved the recommendations set forth by its regulatory body (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI), which require ISPs to adhere to net neutrality principles. This represents a significant step forward for Indian internet users and companies, ensuring that ISPs will not block, throttle, or offer preferential treatment of internet traffic.

India’s efforts to preserve an open internet began in earnest in 2015 when the DoT created a committee to examine the issue. In the years since, the regulators have made steady progress toward implementing meaningful net neutrality protections. CDT provided comments and blogged about the TRAI’s “Pre-Consultation” and “Consultation” on net neutrality, in which the TRAI considered its understanding of the concept and the various regulatory approaches it might take. Finally, more than a year after the last consultation and eight months after the TRAI submitted its recommendations to the DoT, those recommendations will now have legal force, providing India with some of the strongest net neutrality protections in the world.

Although the regulatory structures differ, the substance of the TRAI recommendations is largely similar to the rules in the European Union and the rules set out by the now-repealed Open Internet Order in the U.S. All three forbid the three most blatant discriminatory practices (blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization), but leave network operators flexibility for network management as well as for their treatment of “specialized services” such as telemedicine and connected cars. Likewise, each of these three approaches to net neutrality allow(ed) the regulator to address other discriminatory or unfair practices on a case-by-case basis.

From an enforcement perspective, the DoT’s decision means that ISPs must now comply with the TRAI recommendations to maintain their operating licenses. So even though the recommendations are not codified as law, the risk of lost licenses should provide enough incentive to ensure compliance. By way of comparison, the EU delegates the implementation of its Telecom Single Market regulation to the National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) of individual member states, while BEREC (the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) issues guidelines for the NRAs to follow as they implement the regulation. Currently, the U.S. has reverted to a nearly unregulated position with regard to the practices of ISPs, but the regulatory pendulum will likely swing back towards neutrality again.

For online businesses in India, preserving net neutrality means that small businesses and start-ups will be able to compete and thrive on their own merits rather than on their ability to pay for faster service or broader access. In turn, this open and level field for competition will produce a more diverse, more competitive marketplace for online services and retailers, driven by consumer demands rather than by the commercial interests of ISPs. For consumers, this means more options and more control over which services succeed. But as important as net neutrality is for the economy, it is equally important for democracy. Net neutrality preserves internet users’ ability to express themselves online, to find information, and to seek out the views of others without having their views blocked, limited, or censored.

Kudos to India for taking such a strong stance in favor of net neutrality. CDT hopes that the U.S. will rejoin India, the EU, and many other countries in protecting net neutrality as the global standard.