Net neutrality is every Indians’ birthright

15-Apr-2015 #Digital India Source: India Inc

by Arnab Mitra

There’s a debate raging across government circles in India and across social media. The issue: Net neutrality. The outcome of this debate can have a long-term impact on India’s future as a technology superpower.

Quite simply, the issue is this: should all internet users have equal and unfettered access to all parts of the Net (unless restricted by terms of use mandated by the content producer) or should intermediaries such as telecom companies have the right to give preferential treatment, or levy additional user charges on certain types of content.

To illustrate the point, let us take an actual example: Flipkart, India’s largest e-commerce company, is holding negotiations with Airtel, India’s largest telco, to pay its data charges incurred by users while using the Flipkart app.

On the face of it, this sounds good and consumer-friendly, but it is highly anti-competitive and anti-consumer. How? Consumers, who get to browse the Flipkart app without paying any data charges may be disinclined to visit the sites of other, smaller e-commerce players who may not have the wherewithal to pay Airtel. This will act as an entry barrier and reduce competition in the e-commerce market, thus, restricting consumer choice.
Like Airtel’s “Zero” platform, which specifically promotes such deals, Reliance Communications and Facebook also have plans in this area.

The reason why companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and e-bay, among others, could grow so fast was because consumers had unrestricted access to the internet. In India, Flipkart, Snapdeal, Jabong and others could also ramp up to billion-dollar-plus valuations in almost no time because of the same reason.

All of them have deep pockets – funded by billions of dollars of investor money. They are burning this corpus at a furious rate in the hunt for new customers as competition intensifies in the Indian e-commerce space. If they are allowed to use part of this money to subsidise their customers’ Net surfing bills, it will give them an unfair advantage over newer, smaller rivals who lack such funding.

The question is: why should my service provider and some deep-pocketed companies decide which sites I visit?

The US has decided in favour of Net neutrality and European Union will take a call in a few months. The issue is especially important in India as internet connectivity provides an ideal and relatively cheap platform for universal inclusion – financial, social and cultural.

The government’s ambitious Digital India initiative, which promises to lift people out of poverty, bring new opportunities for advancement for millions of Indians and provide inclusive development to every one of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, is premised on the concept of Net neutrality.

Then, India is poised on the cusp of an internet-powered tech revolution. Tiny start-ups are coming out with new apps everyday. These are often compared to the early tech titans of Palo Alto, who started out in garages with seed funding from family and friends, who went on to become household names across the world. It doesn’t require much of a leap of faith to say that some of these Indian start-ups will also go on to become world beaters if they are given the right environment and some hand holding.

And Net neutrality is, possibly, the most important part of creating that right environment.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has been deluged with more than 150,000 emails arguing in favour of Net neutrality. Indian Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, too, has spoken out in favour of the concept.

It is time to bring this issue to a closure. End this debate by making Net neutrality mandatory in India. It is every Indians’ birthright.

Arnab Mitra is a senior journalist based in Delhi. He writes on business and politics.

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