An unsound recommendation

July 20, 2015 12:18 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:09 am IST

A big let-down amid an otherwise progressive narrative in the Department of Telecommunications’ recent >report on net neutrality is its recommendation to bring voice over internet protocol-based (VoIP) domestic calling services, including applications such as WhatsApp, under licensing. The suggestion is that such services be regulated “through exercise of licensing powers available under section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act to ensure a level playing field.” This does not straightaway mean such calls will be chargeable. The more obvious implication is that such applications can’t operate without the government’s permission, which might be granted only on the fulfilment of certain conditions or the payment of a fee, or both. The DoT’s report is by no means final and binding. Still, the stated logic behind such a suggestion is open to question. The report says telecom companies “may become reluctant to invest in expansion of broadband infrastructure” in an environment where apps that provide similar calling services eat into their revenues. Don’t telecom companies benefit from the apps that ride on whatever services they provide? Doesn’t more app usage mean more data consumed, which in turn mean more revenues for telecom companies?

The recommendation could be flawed on multiple grounds. One, there is a good chance that if the suggestion is implemented the consumer might be worse off for it. But before that, there is a big question mark over whether differentiating a domestic VoIP call from an international one is possible at all. Bar this recommendation, the report does seem to largely reflect a nuanced understanding of the complexities of today’s internet world. This is true even of its references to zero-rating schemes, under which the user is offered data or access to some sites free of cost. True, critics have taken the report to task for not recommending a ban on them. But there are novel zero-rating schemes where the user is given free data and not a pre-selected bouquet of sites, as Facebook’s does (the report doesn’t seem to be in favour of this). It’s heartening that the report repeatedly pitches for net neutrality, the principle of data equality that is important to ensure the internet remains a level-playing field. At the same time, it shows pragmatism in saying that “enforcing net neutrality principle is a new idea and may throw up many questions and problems as we go along,” and that this may require a process of oversight. The report is laced with quotes, including this one from Archibald Putt: “Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.” It is to be hoped India doesn’t live up to this.

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