Specials

Live Chat: For a neutral net



Join us at The Hindu for a live chat at 5 p.m., today with Pranesh Prakash from Centre for Internet and Society, Vijay Anand from The Start Up Centre and Sriram Srinivasan, The Hindu's Business Editor - Online.

Here is the transcript of the chat:

The debate on net neutrality

The Hindu: Hello and welcome to The Hindu's live chat on net neutrality in India.

The Hindu: We have with us Pranesh Prakash from The Centre for Internet and Society and Vijay Anand from The Start Up Centre joining us today!

The Hindu: Also on the panel is The Hindu's Business Editor Online - Sriram Srinivasan who will be moderating this discussion.

Pranesh Prakash: Hi Sriram, thanks for having me on.

Sriram Srinivasan: Hi Pranesh, thanks for joining us

Vijay Anand: Thanks for the invite and looking forward Sriram.

Sriram Srinivasan: The topic of the day is proving to be of huge interest to the public. Pranesh, do you want to start off outlining why Net neutrality is such a big deal.

Sriram Srinivasan: Welcome Vijay, thanks for joining us.

Sriram Srinivasan: Vijay, would like to have your thoughts on the Net neutrality issue too. And how do you see the recent events, starting from the consultation paper that Trai published?

Vijay Anand: Sure, I'll get started as Pranesh puts together his thoughts. In the past few years if you have noticed, entrepreneurship has taken off with a boom. And I'd credit it mostly to the nature of the web - the web being open and allowing anyone with an entrepreneurial thought to build a solution over it. Considering the various constraints we have in a country like India, being ranked over 100 in a list of 146 countries when it comes to the ease of doing business, the fact that the internet is the equaliser has been a huge relief. Thats been recently threatened when Airtel forced TRAI's hand in putting out that 118 page consultation paper. Though, the issue has been brewing for a while now.

Pranesh Prakash: Today, we no longer live in a world of “roti, kapda, makaan”, but in the world of “roti, kapda, makaan aur broadband”. Telecom regulation and net neutrality has a very important role in enabling this vision of Internet as a basic human need that we should aim to fulfil. According to the IAMAI, as of October 2014, India had 278 million internet users. Of these, the majority access Internet through their mobile phones, and the WEF estimates only 3 in 100 have broadband on their mobiles. Thus, the bulk of our population is without broadband.

Pranesh Prakash: All ICT regulation should be aimed at achieving three goals: achieving universal, affordable access; ensuring effective competition in an efficient market and avoiding market failures; protecting against consumer harms.

Sriram Srinivasan: We have sort of taken the openness of the Internet for granted isn't it!

Pranesh Prakash: Given that background, net neutrality is the principle that we should regulate gatekeepers like ISPs to ensure they do not use their power to unjustly discriminate between similarly situated persons, content or traffic.

Vijay Anand: Sriram, we have. The internet by default is open. Thats the way it was built as well, and by nature, carries it through.

Sriram Srinivasan: Pranesh, Vijay, were you both surprised by the kind of reactions that have come in to the Trai paper?

Pranesh Prakash: Currently, ISPs get to play gatekeepers: they can throttle speeds for any service, they can say that a service they don't like (such as WhatsApp) should have to pay them more money to reach their customers (or that customers ought to pay more money to use WhatsApp), etc.

Pranesh Prakash: Well, the Internet has generally been an unregulated space, but the carriers -- those on whose pipes the Internet gets delivered -- have always been highly regulated.

Pranesh Prakash: So, no, the openness of the Internet (by which I guess you mean the unregulated aspect of the Internet) cannot be taken for granted.

Sriram Srinivasan: Just to highlight the issue in a more stark manner, what do both of you see as the best case scenario and worst case scenario facing us now?

Pranesh Prakash: No, I believe that the kinds of responses to the TRAI paper has attracted are predictable. There is a large group of people (including me) who believe the TRAI paper is incredibly biased toward the telecom industry who want greater regulation of "OTTs" like WhatsApp and Facebook and Flipkart.

Pranesh Prakash: What is unexpected is the volume of responses.

Vijay Anand: Sriram, there has been hints of this coming quite sometime back infact. Folks like Nikhil Pawa from Medianama has been raising flags about this issue for almost a year. I dont think it was the TRAI Paper that stirred the waters much as Airtel announcing the differential pricing to charge VoIP calls that woke people up.

Pranesh Prakash: More than 5 lakh responses have been sent in so far!

Vijay Anand: I agree with pranesh. We thought we'd do phenomenally well if we got 10,000 folks to write to TRAI. As of now thats crossed 500,000.

Sriram Srinivasan: That's huge!

Sriram Srinivasan: Vijay is referring to Airtel's decision to charge extra for VoIP apps, which they rolled back immediately.

Vijay Anand: Sriram, they sneakily announced the plan a day after Christmas, hoping everyone was on holidays. But yep the backlash started almost immediately.

Sriram Srinivasan: At that time, Airtel said they were waiting for more clarity from Trai. And then Trai's consultation paper was released around the end of March.

Pranesh Prakash: The worst case scenario is that we have TRAI & the govt setting regulations to enshrine "net non-neutrality" or "network discrimination". The best case scenario is we have TRAI and the govt setting in place good net neutrality regulations and creating an effective marketplace for competitive zero-rating.

Sriram Srinivasan: Pranesh, could you elaborate on what an effective marketplace for competitive zero-rating would look like?

Pranesh Prakash: That's a complicated question... but let me give it a shot.

Vijay Anand: IMO, thats leaving the web as is. Operators not taking a call or having the power to decide, but letting users decide. :)

Sriram Srinivasan: Readers will remember that plans like internet.org and Airtel Zero are zero-rating plans, where some select sites are allowed for access by subscribers free of charge

Pranesh Prakash: Leaving the web as it is, for me, isn't a viable option, since currently operators (who are *gatekeepers*) have the power to decide winners and losers.

Pranesh Prakash: Zero-rating is the practice of not counting (aka “zero-rating”) certain traffic towards a subscriber’s regular Internet usage. The zero-rated traffic could be zero-priced or fixed-price, capped or uncapped, metered or unmetered, subscriber-paid, Internet service-paid, or unpaid. Further, depending on the terms, zero-rating could be competitive or anti-competitive.

Pranesh Prakash: I believe that anti-competitive zero-rating (for instance, Airtel zero-rating it's own Hike chat service's traffic) should be prohibited.

Sriram Srinivasan: Pranesh, what do you think about internet.org?

Sriram Srinivasan: Thanks Vijay, this is very useful

Pranesh Prakash: Internet.org provides free access to a range of Internet services. I hate that they are calling it "Internet.org", when they don't provide access to the whole of the Internet.

Pranesh Prakash: But having said that, Internet.org (for which no operator gets paid) could be competitive or anti-competitive depending on the existence of regulations to ensure a competitive marketplace.

Vijay Anand: I agree with Pranesh on that bit. The name is a bit misleading, and even papers reported it as facebook's web, or facebook giving the Internet for free.

Sriram Srinivasan: But isn't it surprising that criticism against it has been muted, compared to say Airtel Zero. Is that because of its message that it wants to reach out to those who aren't connected with the Net?

Pranesh Prakash: And the good side of Internet.org is that it provides access. That, as I pointed out earlier, is one of the three goals of ICT regulation.

Vijay Anand: Sriram: It could also be that there arent a lot of subscribers on Reliance, as compared to Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, which i believe has close to 75% of the user base.

Sriram Srinivasan: Let's also remind readers that this isn't a fight confined to India. It's happening all over the world, each with their own unique issues. The one in the US was the most high-profile and recent and would be fresh in everyone's mind.

Pranesh Prakash: I think the reason why people view them as being different is that Airtel Zero is explicitly commercial but Wikipedia Zero and Airtel.org are non-commercial (in that they don't pay Airtel or any other provider for carrying their content). But I, personally, don't think this should make a difference.

Comment From Sabiya

What is the scope of zero-rating vis-a-vis important government websites?

Vijay Anand: Its something to think about. And i think this proposal will get floated. But one has to think about Net Neutrality from the perspective of "is this person who is picked, the best person to provide the service (forever)". In the future, i somehow anticipate that it would make far more sense for the government to build the fundamental system and build APIs that other entrepreneurs can build front-ends to, rather than them ending up more clones of IRCTC. Does that answer your question?

Comment From Sankar

Is net neutrality the socialism of the internet world? Is it sustainable on a long run?

Pranesh Prakash: 1. I don't believe it is socialism. In fact, the most important concept that underlies Net Neutrality is competition law. 2. It is sustainable in the long run, since discriminatory practices hurt competition, and harm consumers as well. In fact, not having Net Neutrality will be unsustainable.

Vijay Anand: Sankar: Quite the opposite, it is the platform that enables a free market. In that sense its democratic.

Comment From Guest

How can we make sure that neutrality is made public in India like US or Canada did. What should we do about it? I understand that all ISP have power to decide the winner but its also about consumers who has to pay more to get basic requirements done in right way.

Vijay Anand: If the policy makers and protests that are going on do their job, we will have a net neutrality policy. Canada doesnt have a net Neutality policy by the way. Only 7 countries in the world do. Canada isnt one of them. In a way we are ahead of this trend.

Comment From Ravi

In a country which is democratic, how can one be more free in communication can the other?

Pranesh Prakash: Well put. But do remember that rich people *are* currently more free in communicating with others than poor people since the rich have greater access to the platforms of communication.

Vijay Anand: IMO, I am opposed to zero rating, because saying we want to give access to the "poor" for free, sounds a lot like the aid model. I am not a big fan of that, since I havent seen many who have been weaned of that. An entire continent of Africa has been subject to that. You are right, if you ask me.

Comment From Nayan

I hate technology. So why should I still be bothered about Net Neutrality

Sriram Srinivasan: So that your voice can still be heard.

Pranesh Prakash: To ensure that when Airtel offers you "free Internet" it isn't in fact locking you up in a walled garden of a few services instead of the Internet.

Comment From Pranav

Should we not put pressure on the government to amend the Telegraph Act, 1885 instead of focusing on TRAI? An amendment to the act would ensure that net neutrality remains rather than just focusing on consultation papers by TRAI.

Vijay Anand: Pranesh would know how to answer this best.

Comment From Abhinav Goyal

To save internet from the general perception "more you pay easier it gets for you" , neutral net is essential.

Pranesh Prakash: If we dogmatically oppose all zero rating, then it will take much much longer for Internet services to trickle down to poor people. So as things stand, the more you pay, the more free you are. And if you're poor, you're not free to access Internet services.

Comment From Guest

how is airtel zero similar to net non neutrality. isnt it like OLX/quicker who return search result with preference to their paid advertiser

Vijay Anand: Yes. or a Google for that matter. But unlike the operators who are the gateway to the internet, OLX and Quickr both have to fight to better their experience for folks to come to them in the first place. Take the case of Google for example, if you are starting to get better search results in bing, you might switch. But operators could dramatically alter the way that goes, when they start prioritizing.

Pranesh Prakash: Stated as a general principle, I don't think those two situations are alike. In economic jargon: OLX/Quickr don't exhibit as strong a network effect as Airtel does, and thus are lesser "gatekeepers" than Airtel. So them showing preferential treatment to some matters less than when Airtel does it.

Pranesh Prakash: Airtel Zero is similar to Facebook, though. Not to OLX/Quickr. Facebook exhibits huge network effects, and the shifting costs (to VK or Sina Weibo) are huge since the people and businesses you want to reach are present in Facebook but not on VK.

Comment From Guest

Could you please explain in detail what are all the possible ways in which Airtel Zero could unduly make money if the platform is given the permission to operate.

Vijay Anand: If you say come up with an idea to start a music service - or prefer Gaana.com or you listen in Saavn or rdio, but Airtel says data is free if you use Wynk, which would people prefer? Thats the issue. Operators could have the opportunity to pick winners, (based on who could pay), whereas the web, being an open platform was always about the best solution winning.

Sriram Srinivasan: It could make it difficult for internet start-ups to compete with incumbents, therefore.

Pranesh Prakash: Three potential problems which are closely linked, are cross-subsidization, tying (anti-competitive bundling) of multiple services, and vertical price squeeze. All three of these are especial concerns now, with the increased diversification of traditional telecom companies, and with the entry into telecom of companies that create content. Hence, if Airtel cross-subsidizes the Hike chat application that it recently acquired, or if Reliance Jio requires customers to buy a subscription to an offering from Reliance Big Entertainment, or if Reliance Jio meters traffic from Reliance Big Entertainment differently from that from Saavn, all those would be violative of the principle of non-discrimination by gatekeepers.

Comment From Abhishek

Sir dont u think always and everytime there is a protest when something emerges which is out of conventional stuffs......this protest culture is holding back India to develop a healthy competitive culture

Vijay Anand: Who is protesting, usually has a lot to say. At times very very good things come out of protests. thats the way democracy works. Doesnt it?

Pranesh Prakash: There are some modes of protest that I didn't agree with (down-voting the Flipkart app on Google Play Store and on iTunes, eg). But what's wrong with protest?

Comment From abutiger@gmail.com

Panel members : Can any members explain what is Net Neutrality. In what it is going to effect the net user had the new law come in to force? Thank you. Abu

Vijay Anand: Abu, there is no new law yet. There is a proposal from the operators asking for differential pricing based on a few factors. You can read that 118 page proposal on the website. At the moment, the government is considering both sides of the argument.

Sriram Srinivasan: Comments on the paper can be sent till April 25. And counter-comments close on May 8.

Sriram Srinivasan: Apologies, it should be April 24

Comment From Badri Narayanan

How is net neutrality in developed nations? Does it work differently there?

Vijay Anand: Only 7 countries in the world (pranesh can correct me if wrong) have a policy in place. it is assumed that by default the internet is open and neutral. Its only when that is challenged that we need a policy in place, so that there are no grey areas.

Sriram Srinivasan: Also, even in developed countries, the telecom companies do keep complaining about OTT services, the apps, and how they are cannabalising into their business.

Comment From kasthuri rangan

I support the TRAI suggestion as it will put an end to unwanted sites that spoils the youth and waste their tiem

Vijay Anand: I'd agree, but one can do that on a more individual household level, rather than on a national / network level. Who decides what we consume? What if tomorrow the government decides everyone watching youtube is wasting their time, or watching cricket should be doing something better. That starts to tread into censorship - which infact is a totally different matter altogether.

Sriram Srinivasan: Totally agree with Vijay.

Comment From RAJAT

My question is that why the ISPs want to disrupt the ongoing net neautrality?/

Vijay Anand: To make more money :) Even though their revenues are doubling every year from selling data services.

Pranesh Prakash: Currently net neutrality doesn't exist. So ISPs can't destroy it.

Comment From Amit Jha

Who owns the Internet and where does money come for its maintenance/expansion etc.

Vijay Anand: Amit, thats a brilliant question, Worthy of going into Quora infact. Its a long answer. The core of the web is managed by an organization called iCANN which is infact a confederation. However the extension, hosting, services etc are put together by virtually everyone and anyone. You can plug a computer into the internet and decide to be a server or a consumer. That's the beauty of the internet.

Sriram Srinivasan: You might want to read a very interesting book called 'Tubes' by Andrew Blum. It is about "a journey to the center of the internet." The author wanted to understand the physicality of the Internet.

Comment From Jyotiranjan

In the garb of net neutrality are the companies like whatsapp, skype getting their business without paying licencing fee where as telcos had to pay substantial sum for doing business?

Sriram Srinivasan: It's a completely different business model. It's tech that has enabled of lot of these things, in the same way that telcos can now play a part, albeit small, in the banking industry.

Vijay Anand: Jyoti, In a way yes. But skype or whatapp still doesnt work unless we pay for the data through which all of this rides. So infact even when we use skype and think its a free call there is cost of bandwidth associated with it. With the fact that the call is no longer circuit switched by packet switched, the charges that the operator claims they incur are also eliminated. its a far more efficient system.

Comment From VA

If airtel is providing free access to certain websites, I welcome that. I already have access to other websites via other service providers for which I pay. I don't understand what is this fuss all about.

Pranesh Prakash: This can be a good thing if it doesn't harm competition. If it harms competition, then in the long run, it is bad (even if immediately consumers think it is good). Think about predatory pricing: http://www.ictregulationtoo... Consumers might like predatory pricing in the beginning, but that allows for a company to squeeze out competition and then raise prices later. Harming competition is harmful for consumers in the long run. That's why we need to ensure that we only allow competitive zero-rating.

Vijay Anand: I agree. Users will want this. I Would want this. But the truth is, when you think about it from the other side, of people who are building companies, and coming up with new ideas to make things better, it makes it an uphill battle.

Comment From sapan

i would like request to Trai. do not give Net Nuutrality

Pranesh Prakash: Why do you think it would be harmful? Protection of consumers from harm is something you oppose? Ensuring fair non-discriminatory competition is something you oppose? I'm unclear why.

Vijay Anand: Sapan, I presume you mean the other way around.

The Hindu: Thank you Pranesh, Vijay and Sriram for all the replies!

Vijay Anand: It was a pleasure. And thanks for having me.

The Hindu: Is there anything else you'd like to say before we close this chat?

Pranesh Prakash: Net neutrality is the principle that we should regulate gatekeepers to ensure they do not use their power to unjustly discriminate between similarly situated persons, content or traffic. It is a democratic principle (in line with the right to equality in our Constitution) and it is important for freedom of speech and expression. Let us ensure that through effective regulation of competition we can ensure a free and open Internet that is accessible by all!

Sriram Srinivasan: Thanks! Also, readers, would be great to treat this as a consultation process initiated by Trai. There will be different points of view. It's not like a usual protest. It's just to find the right way forward for us. Also, please do participate in the process, whatever your views.

The Hindu: Well said! Thank you to all the readers who followed and participated in this live chat. Do connect with us on Twitter/Facebook for more questions and discussions on this topic.

The Hindu: Thanks and have a great evening!






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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 3:18:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/specials/chat-for-a-neutral-net-net-neutrality-in-india/article10776337.ece

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