He who pays, wins?

Two significant developments in the Internet world took place last week. Soon after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, its Indian counterpart, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), released its set of recommendations on net neutrality, which essentially advocated the opposite of the FCC’s position.

Now that isn’t law yet here — there will have to be responses from the Department of Telecommunications and various telecom companies and Internet service providers (all telcos are also ISPs but all ISPs are not telcos). TRAI itself has to explain various terms such as what constitutes ‘specialised services’, which are exempt from net neutrality restrictions, or what can be construed as a content delivery network, but the move nevertheless was cheered by net neutrality activists everywhere, with some even suggesting that India could become a role model for the rest of the world.

Following the U.S.’s footsteps

The cheering may be a bit premature though. The role model bit definitely is. This is because the U.S. has always been and in all likelihood will continue to be the model on which the rest of the world shapes its cyberspace. The Internet was invented in the U.S., it grew there, the world’s biggest Internet companies are American, the first regulatory model evolved there... you get the picture. What the U.S. does, the rest of the world sooner or later does too.

In fact, the whole net neutrality debate in India itself has distinctly American roots. It was triggered by two developments: a move by Facebook to offer a kind of diet Internet to India’s poor, and some path-breaking legislation by the Obama administration on how the Internet should be treated.

First, Facebook. Its ‘Free Basics’ programme offered free access to Facebook and a clutch of government and other sites ‘approved’ by Facebook. How this worked was Facebook would pay telecom companies to give their customers free access to the sites in the ‘Free Basics’ programme.

This sounded like a seductive idea. India’s poor could, Facebook argued, unlock the potential of the Internet — access government information and service sites, access education and healthcare information, and, of course, network with the rest of the world — for free. But there were strings attached: the sites would be those approved by Facebook, or those which paid Facebook to be part of the bundle. The basic premise of the Internet, which is universal access, would go out of the window.

India’s decision to ban the Free Basics programme — and others like it — was eventually spurred by another American development. The Obama administration decided to make the Internet a basic public utility, like electricity and water. Private operators would provide the service, but they would be regulated like providers of other public utility services, which meant that there were caps on what fees could be charged to provide broadband access, and, more importantly, differential access — providing a faster lane to those who paid more and slowing down or blocking access to those who didn’t — would not be allowed. This spurred TRAI to throw out the Free Basics programme and essentially take a pro net neutrality position. Now that the Republican Trump administration has reversed all that, there is a good chance that the Indian position will change too. Which is why I say that this particular battle is far from over.

The man who made that call, FCC chairman Ajit Pai (yes, of Indian origin!), argues that far from killing the Internet, this will help it grow by incentivising service providers to innovate and build better infrastructure. His other argument to back his point was that Internet platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook play a far more significant role in what users see — or don’t see — than ISPs.

Danger to democracy

He had a beef with Twitter taking down some incendiary comments by some Republican supporters, but you can see where this gets interesting for the powers that be in India. In fact, despite officially batting for an unrestricted Internet, the Indian government (both Central and State governments) has been among the world leaders when it comes to blocking access, filtering content, or simply preventing access. According to a report on net freedom by Freedom House, Indian authorities blocked telecom access (mobile and Internet) 37 times between June 2016 and May 2017 in various parts of the country. Thousands of URLs have been blocked by USPs on orders from the government, while platforms like Twitter and Facebook routinely receive requests to either take down content or disclose the identity of a user.

Now imagine a situation where you have a hypersensitive government ready to pounce on anything that it considers remotely offensive (remember, teenagers have been arrested in India for Facebook comments), ISPs and content platforms prepared to discriminate on content based on who pays, and, say, a well funded political party prepared to pay to drown out contrary voices. What do you think will happen to this thing we call democracy?

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 3:48:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/he-who-pays-wins/article21823468.ece

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