The Internet’s tempting presence

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - February 14, 2015 01:21 am IST

Toward the end of last year, there was an uproar when India’s leading telecom carrier Bharti Airtel decided to charge subscribers extra for use of applications such as Skype to make free calls over the Internet. Airtel was criticised for violating a key principle influencing Internet traffic, which is that all data must be treated equally and there must be no discrimination. The principle goes by the name Net neutrality. Within days, the company beat a retreat on its pricing move, saying it would wait for the regulator, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s consultation paper in this regard. The paper is still awaited. In contrast, there was hardly a whimper when a few days ago social media giant >Facebook tied up with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications to bring to India a service that critics globally believe presents a huge challenge to Net neutrality. The reason is not hard to fathom. Facebook’s offering,, unlike that in the Airtel example, is free. The stated intention of the social media network is to make available Internet to those who don’t have it. It is hard to find fault with such a mission. Despite fast growth in recent years, the percentage of individuals using the Internet in India is less than 20 per cent. China and Brazil, in comparison, have already got about half their populations accessing the Internet.

The catch then is in how has been implemented. In every country where it has been launched — India is the sixth — offers a preselected bouquet of websites free to subscribers of Facebook’s telecom partner, under a practice dubbed zero-rating. Yes, this does mean millions of Indians could for the first time in their lives access the Internet, albeit an extremely limited version of it. But there are numerous reasons why it is difficult to see it as an altruistic endeavour. One, the subscribers have no say in selecting the websites. Two, the Internet ceases to be an open platform where everyone has an equal chance to succeed. Three, in the long run, could present a huge competitive advantage to some, to the disadvantage of many. This is all the more significant, because newer Internet adopters are going to do so via smartphones, which are becoming cheaper by the day. India’s smartphone sales are exploding, almost doubling to 80 million units in 2014 compared to the previous year, and expected to double once more this year. Also, Facebook and Reliance, both having more than a hundred million users in India, are not small entities trying out a novel practice here. In this context, it will all boil down to what India’s official position is on this. The telecom regulator’s much-awaited consultation paper will make that amply clear.

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