Net neutrality: Why ISPs should not have the the power to discriminate

27-Jan-2016 #Digital India

by Arvind Gupta

Net neutrality is imperative for India’s development says Arvind Gupta, as he argues that giving Internet Service Providers the right to decide consumers’ access to content would go against the very grain of the Digital India vision.

Net Neutrality is an integral lever in making digital inclusion in India a reality. India’s ICT developmental status and socio-demographics are uniquely different to those of the developed nations, it would be unfair to compare them.

How India approaches net neutrality is being watched keenly across the world, by countries that are yet to finalise their own position.

What is net neutrality? For layman’s understanding, it’s like buying units of electricity for your home and then using it for running refrigerators, mixers, bulbs or air coolers. The electricity company does not specify the end usage of the units you purchase, does not discriminate between brands or type of appliances on costs, quality of electricity. The same applies to the internet. net neutrality has to be defined as no discrimination in access, speed, costs and content. While the first three are in the purview of internet service providers, the last one – content – is under the platform providers.

While the inherent architecture of internet is designed to be neutral, In a ‘mobile-first’ country like India, the telecom internet service providers have discovered the power to discriminate on access, speed and costs using advanced routing technology for short-term corporate gains but ignoring long-term consumer benefits.
Improved internet access is the backbone of Digital India and is extremely critical for us to enable the market creation for Startup India. The major argument telecom companies make is that they need to get return on their investment on the expensive spectrum they buy. While they blame the loss of revenue on calls and text messages due to some internet-based application they carefully choose not to mention the increased revenue from data usage. Being a precious national resource, the government has always been judicious in spectrum allocation. However, this does not mean that the government’s goal isn’t to maximise benefit of access for its citizens. One example of this is the institution of rollout obligations upon allocation of spectrum. It is for the telecom operators to optimise and use the available spectrum to its maximum efficiency, but at the same time, ensure that the public goal of maximising access to knowledge and services is met.

The proponents of zero-rating schemes argue that it will help the economically weaker section of the society, and this will be the boost new customers need to get on to the internet. But this is a one sided view. While their zero rating plans might reduce the cost of surfing a few websites, accessing a few applications or might even make them free but the grave repercussion of limited choice for the end consumer is bigger than it. It creates a walled garden, which is especially more dangerous to new digital natives, since it denies them the same type of access which digital incumbents have.

Zero-rated platforms not only violate the principles of net neutrality but also stifle innovation and entrepreneurship by excluding new websites, home-grown applications, local language content providers which may not be available on these platforms.

In the consumers purview, as long as they have bought the right to consume a certain amount of data, they should be completely free to do what they like to do, whether watch videos, surf websites, communicate via internetbased text/call. Those proposing free internet access as philanthropy or CSR activity should do it without any pre-conditions. For the policy maker’s perspective, the need is to clearly define the subject of net neutrality and take educated decisions to reach the ultimate goal to benefit the consumers, entrepreneurs, creators who are the soul of the Digital India movement.

The article was first published in Economic Times.

Arvind GuptaTechnology Entrepreneur, Eisenhower Innovation Fellow and Head of BJP’s Technology Group.

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