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Digital Technologies have become an inseparable part of modern lives, so much so, that many essential services are now being delivered digitally. The internet has become a necessity for most day-to-day affairs. This digital ecosystem has been enabled by various stakeholders and gateways like telecom service providers, personal computers and smartphones, operating systems, App developers etc. However, when these gateways restrict access to internet/networks, they become gatekeepers and threaten net neutrality and openness of the internet. The Government has undertaken several steps to ensure Net Neutrality in India. As the digital technologies evolve further, the regulators must adopt a dynamic approach to keep the norms and regulations inline with the latest developments to ensure equitable access to internet to all.
What is the meaning of Net Neutrality?
There is no standard definition of Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is globally understood as a network principle of equal treatment of data packets moving across the IP networks. The concept has been used more broadly to describe the open and non-discriminatory access to the Internet. Attempts have been made by many to define the contours of Net Neutrality.
The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) defines Net Neutrality as the principle that all electronic communication passing through a network is treated equally. Equal treatment means that it is treated independent of content, application, service, device, sender’s address, and receiver’s address. Neutrality towards the sender and receiver address implies that the treatment of data packets is independent of both users – sender and the receiver – at the edges of the network.
The term ‘Net Neutrality’ was coined by Professor Tim Wu. He had observed that, “Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application“.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
What are the benefits of Net Neutrality?
Protect Small Entrepreneurs: Net neutrality protects small entrepreneurs from unfair competition with big internet tech giants. Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners and start-ups who can launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination.
Free and Democratized Internet: It will ensure open and free Internet accessible to all. It has enabled myriad of online services including e-commerce.
Equality of Consumers: It is a step promotes equality of consumer and accentuate free and open internet access.
Reduced Tariffs: Net neutrality principles have ensured that tariffs remain low and internet remains affordable in India.
Increasing Internet Penetration: Affordable tariffs have enabled internet penetration including in rural areas. This has also facilitated access to public services as well.
Employment Generation: Net neutrality has proven to be crucial in fostering digital economy. Digital economy has given rise to tremendous opportunities, both big-tech companies and numerous tech-based start-ups. It has also supported gig economy which has supported livelihood opportunities in the informal sector.
How has Net Neutrality evolved and being implemented in India?
The idea of Net Neutrality started flowing in December 2014 in India, when telecom operator Bharti Airtel decided to charge extra for making Internet calls. This led to widespread protests, which forced Airtel to roll-back its plan.
In June 2015, Department of Telecommunication (DoT) constituted a six-member committee on Net Neutrality to recommend overall policy Regulations and Technical responses.
TRAI released the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations in 2016.
In November 2017, TRAI recommended that the license agreement entered into between the Government and ISPs should be amended to clarify that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not permitted to discriminate between different types of content on the Internet, including based on factors such as the sender or receiver of the data packets, the protocols being deployed or the equipment being used.
In July 2018, the DoT released the Regulatory framework on Net Neutrality. The said Regulations provide for principle of non-discriminatory treatment. Through this decision, Internet service providers (ISPs) were disallowed from indulging in any kind of discriminatory treatment of content, including practices like blocking specific websites or speeding/ slowing down of content.
The Union Cabinet approved the final National Digital Communications Policy, 2018. The Policy aimed at providing ‘broadband to all’, and replaced the National Telecom Policy, 2012. It aims to: (a) Establish a strong, flexible and robust data protection regime; (b) Introduce appropriate disclosure and transparency requirements to ensure compliance with Net Neutrality Principles; (c) Address security issues of digital communications and develop security standards for equipment and devices; (d) Formulate a policy on encryption and data retention; (e) Develop a comprehensive plan for network preparedness, disaster response relief, restoration and reconstruction.
Even though net neutrality is advocated for and supported by TRAI’s guidelines for the Unified Access Service License, it is not mandated. In India, there are no laws that protect net neutrality. In addition, the Information Technology Act of 2000 does not prohibit private companies from throttling their respective services.
What are the concerns with Net Neutrality?
Less Network Innovation: Network Operators have to invest in maintaining and expanding the internet’s infrastructure to support new services while most benefits are reaped by Internet content companies like Google, Facebook etc. Critics say that lack of investment in infrastructure will eventually increase the costs to customers.
No free Internet access: Opponents of net neutrality contend that more vital services could be made accessible for free if the companies that draw excess bandwidth (e.g., the video streaming websites/OTTs) are charged extra for their heavy use.
Access to Objectionable Content: Offensive, dangerous, illicit and illegal content is accessible to everyone through net neutrality, and is difficult to remove. In the absence of net neutrality, Internet service providers can filter dangerous content.
Net Neutrality not necessary for Tech Evolution: Critics of Net Neutrality argue that the internet developed amazingly well even in the absence of Net Neutrality e.g., most large internet companies including Google (1998), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and Twitter (2006) were started and grew to success without net neutrality regulations.
Burdensome Regulations: Net neutrality created burdensome and overreaching regulations to govern the internet e.g., Net Neutrality rules mandate extra reporting standards for ISPs to ensure compliance which adds to costs.
What should be done going ahead?
First, India’s blocking rules, contain a legal obligation to maintain the confidentiality of blocking requests and any action taken under them. This apparent inconsistency between the two sets of rules can allow ISPs to indulge in unjustified interference with Internet traffic under the shield of confidentiality offered by the website blocking rules. So, there is need to bring transparency in this rules.
|Read More: Need of reforming the blocking powers of Government|
Second, It is important for authorities in India to create appropriate frameworks for the monitoring and enforcement of the norms. The Government must specify transparency obligations to be followed by ISPs in relation to their traffic management practices.
Third, The TRAI has recommended the establishment of a regulatory body to uphold Net Neutrality. This should be discussed with all stakeholders and taken forward. The body should be designed in a manner that shields it from any kind of industry capture, either by the telecom sector or large Internet-based businesses.
The Government has done a commendable job by formulating the Net Neutrality norms that have ensured that the content over internet remains accessible to all without any discrimination. The technology sector is evolving at a rapid pace and the Government and its agencies must remain alert to check any discriminatory practices especially by tech giants. The Competition Commission of India recently fined Google for its billing policy related to Google Playstore. This is reassuring, the same proactive should be continued to ensure that benefits of the digital economy are accessible to all.
Syllabus: GS II, Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation; GS III, Awareness in the field of IT.
Source: Indian Express, Indian Express, Department of Telecommunications