Why other countries should take India's example to build their net neutrality guidelines
Today, a fight to ensure the continued presence of a basic human right has been won in India.
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In December 2014, Airtel, one of India’s largest telecom companies, announced plan to charge extra for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or simply calls made through the internet, and not through standard telecom networks, in India. Airtel, of course, faced a lot of backlash from internet freedom activists and policy lawyers who saw the immediate threat this put the internet in. Airtel withdrew the plan in just about one week.
That was the first victory. But the battle carried on, and almost three and a half years on, those who have soldiered for internet neutrality have been vindicated.
Today, the Telecom Commission (TC), the highest-decision making body within the department of telecommunications (DoT), accepted recommendations made by regulatory body TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Association of India) in November, 2017, that ensures Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would not be able to control the content people accessed or the speed at which all online traffic flows, and would prevent them from creating “fast lanes” with priority content delivery for higher-paying customers. That is the essence of Net Neutrality. Telcos cannot discriminate against Internet content and services by blocking, throttling or granting them higher speed access.
Telecom secretary Aruna Sundarajan said: “The TC today approved net neutrality as recommended by TRAI. Now the licence agreements (with service providers) will be immediately amended and will be subject to principles of net neutrality." Reportedly, however, some critical services — like mission critical applications or services like remote surgery and autonomous cars — would be kept out of purview of this new policy.
Specialised services, as per reports, are only exempt from Net Neutrality rules if “such services are not usable or offered as a replacement for Internet Access Services.”
MediaNama's Aroon Deep discussing the new Net Neutrality policies.
Net Neutrality, over the years, has become somewhat of a household term in the Indian netscape. With the media taking an active interest in the topic in 2015 — in March that year, TRAI issued a consultation paper on regulating over-the-top players where comments on network neutrality were invited for the first time, and a month later, Airtel introduced Zero Rating that allowed apps like Flipkart to pay for data used by consumers on Airtel's network — the battle for internet neutrality has received support, not just from activists, but also MPs and millions of citizens who championed the cause on internet forums.
And with India’s new net neutrality rules being touted as one of the strongest in the world, this victory casts a harsh light on the situation in the United States, where net neutrality is under serious threat. Ironically, the threat there comes from a man of Indian origin — Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In June 2018, the FCC's decision to overturn net neutrality protections went into effect, giving ISPs in the US leeway to block, throttle and prioritise websites and content. The battle, of course, is far from over. At least 29 states introduced more than 65 bills aimed at protecting net neutrality and seven states enacted executive orders that made it illegal for state agencies to enter contracts with ISPs that don't uphold net neutrality.
According to a non-binding resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2016, access to internet is a basic human right.
Today, a fight to ensure the continued presence of this basic human right has been won in India.
The world (especially the US) should take a cue and do the same.