The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has to be commended >for batting unambiguously for net neutrality , the principle of non-discrimination that is vital for the Internet to remain an open platform. Its decision was made clear on Monday when it prohibited telecom providers from charging differential rates for data services. The regulator’s stance is commendable for two other reasons as well. One, it had to face enormous pressures to tinker with the way the Internet is governed. And, two, net neutrality, with its numerous interpretations, is a complex concept. The latest ruling could no doubt set the tone for regulators across the globe, especially those of countries that have socio-economic features akin to India’s. More important, it would ensure that generations of Indians are not forced to be satisfied with services that pretend to be the Internet itself, robbing them of the real benefits of the medium. TRAI’s decision would bring relief and cheer to the millions of Indians as also some voluntary groups that admirably >campaigned for months together for this result , worried as they were that the regulator would give up on net neutrality. The danger had seemed that real. In the last year or so, there have been more than a few attempts by the big players to offer Internet services that intrinsically seemed to violate this principle. The public debate on net neutrality began during late 2014 when India’s top telecom carrier Bharti Airtel >decided to charge users extra for the use of applications with which they can make free calls over the Internet.
But the most prominent and persistent among the companies has to be Facebook, which spent a lot of time in >pitching its Free Basics initiative as an altruistic effort that would help millions of India’s Internet have-nots. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, took a personal interest in the campaign. Facebook’s global rebranding of its internet.org initiative as a platform open for all but adhering to Facebook’s standards, which offered “free and basic services”, was arguably the consequence of the debate over net neutrality in the country. The point about providing at least some access to millions of new users for free, who otherwise cannot afford it, must have been difficult for TRAI to ignore. And that is why it is important to recognise that a ‘no’ to Free Basics does not imply a failure on the part of TRAI to recognise the importance of catering to the Internet have-nots. In fact, the regulator has noted that it is not against the provision of limited free data that allows a user to explore the Internet. Simply put, it finds this route palatable because the choice is with the user. This is also a route that Free Basics could explore in the immediate future in order to stay alive in India. The regulator’s problem with a price-based differentiation has more to do with the fact that in a market such as India it would distort consumer choice and have consequences that wouldn’t be understood easily. The ruling also suggests that while TRAI recognises the need for India to bridge the digital divide, it realises that compromising the basic ideals of the Internet is not the way to do it.