Digital

Tussle over Net Neutrality in India Hits Final Stretch

As TRAI looks to make a final decision, the Save the Internet movement is rallying India’s start-up ecosystem while Facebook considers independent oversight of Free Basics.

Facebook: to use or not to use? Credit: melenita/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Free Basics: To use or not to use? TRAI will soon take a call. Credit: melenita/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

With the open house discussion on differential pricing of Internet services coming to a close last week, and TRAI Chairman R.S Sharma indicating that the regulator will come out with its position by the end of the month, the fight for net neutrality in India has entered the home stretch.

Both sides of the net neutrality debate — best represented (but certainly not limited to) by the Save the Internet movement and Facebook — are currently making final attempts at engaging with their supporters and critics as a means of cementing their positions.

For Save the Internet, their work has always revolved around better informing the public, involving civil society in policy formulation and drumming up support for net neutrality; a subject that may seem dry and technical but has a number of implications for the way we lead our digital lives.

Over the last two weeks, organizers behind the pro net neutrality collective have come out with a number of tools that seek to crack down on misinformation surrounding the TRAI public consultation process. One of these tools was a means of, ironically, helping out supporters of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative.

People who had sent out a missed call or supported Free Basics through the social networking service’s platform were supposed to have received a message from Facebook that informed them that their support would not be counted unless they answered questions posed by TRAI’s consultation paper. If you did support Free Basics, but haven’t received a message from Facebook asking you to expand on your support with specific answers, you should definitely contact the company; your support has been exploited to further Facebook’s interests.

The Save the Internet movement’s latest effort is to rally India’s start-up ecosystem: an industry that will suffer greatly if laws upholding net neutrality aren’t passed. The collective has put out a draft letter that all start-ups can sign.

The letter, which will be sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the wake of his Start Up & Stand Up India initiative held last week and his government’s Republic Day celebrations tomorrow, touches specifically on how the ideas behind ‘Digital India’ and net neutrality are intertwined, why permission-based systems will destroy innovation and how net neutrality violations will lead to increased costs for India’s start-ups.

If you are a founder, a start-up employee, an aspiring entrepreneur or even a student — and you believe in net neutrality, the letter can be signed and sent here. Over 500 responses have been collected so far and the Save the Internet movement hopes to hit over a 1,000 by 1 PM today.

The Other Side

The trajectory of Facebook and the way it has approached the public debate in general and its walled-garden Internet initiative Free Basics in specific has been rather topsy-turvy.

After receiving initial criticism regarding its Internet.org (the earliest avatar of Free Basics) programme, the company sought to respond to some of its critics in July last year by partially opening up Internet.org to various telecom operators and pledging to involve greater engagment with the various developers interested in being included.

From then onwards, however, the company has become more frantic and less measured with the way it has tried to influence the net neutrality debate in developing countries. In September 2015, the company re-branded Internet.org to Free Basics as a means of changing its philosophical approach to Internet access. A name like Free Basics, as The Wire has pointed out in an earlier article, implies that the Internet can be watered down and passed off as  developmental resource the way inferior food items and electronics are often done in India. This rebranding exercise shows that Silicon Valley-based companies can believe in net neutrality in California while turning around and violating it in a place like Chattisgarh.

In November, the company embarked on a multi-million dollar in-your-face advertising campaign that engaged in a spot of mudslinging with net neutrality activists. This was perhaps the company’s biggest mistake. Instead of trying to shift the debate towards an empirical-based approach over what type of Internet access rural India needs — an important debate considering the near absence of data — the company tried to go on the offensive and won very few supporters.

Many of the recent moves taken by Facebook do very little to hide the social networking company’s corporate interests: a development that was noted disapprovingly by TRAI last week. Indeed, so many of Facebook’s decisions over the last few months in India have been missteps that one can only wonder whether the company’s India public policy team will try to change course and recover some of its lost goodwill in the coming months. Some indicators show that this may be in the offing: of sources, Facebook has tried engaging with a number of its critics in India over the last few weeks in order to figure out how Free Basics can be changed. One of the recurring suggestions is placing Free Basics under independent oversight which may be useful, but does little to quell many of the gatekeeping concerns that Save the Internet raises.

When contacted, a Facebook spokesperson pointed out that  there are a number of mechanisms being discussed to make Free Basics more transparent.

“The platform is free to consumers and developers, non-exclusive to any TSP (so all can join) and open to any developer that satisfies open and transparent technical standards. In discussions with critics of the program, we’ve been exploring mechanisms to ensure these three criteria are never applied in a manner that is anti-competitive, arbitrary or discriminatory.  Adding independent oversight, including from a non-profit organization are among the mechanisms we have discussed, though no final decisions have been made,” the spokesperson said in an e-mailed response.

An important actor that has been absent within the mainstream debate, however, has been the major telecom companies, which is a pity because the rules that are being regulated by TRAI at the moment will have to revolve around them. It would be a pity if the public forgot initiatives such as Airtel Zero, in light of Facebook’s attention-seeking antics.

While a few telecom companies such as Aircel have come out with free Internet initiatives that do not violate net neutrality, it remains to be seen whether they will support the principles of net neutrality in both the letter and spirit of the law.