Opinion: Our World Our Times
As regulator TRAI is primed to secure the interest of the Consumer and to safeguard Constitutional guarantees such as the freedom of speech and expression but it is indeed an irony that it has set in motion proposals that would not only hurt the consumers because access to some services will be costlier but also hurt enterprise, entrepreneurial growth and smaller Internet businesses
As the world watches the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the policy makers are considering a strange set of rules that will allow cable and phone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the Internet that will curb not only the freedom of the digital media but also the costs to the consumers by dictating decisive dominance of what, how and why in the cyber world.
As regulator TRAI is primed to secure the interest of the Consumer and to safeguard Constitutional guarantees such as the freedom of speech and expression but it is indeed an irony that it has set in motion proposals that would not only hurt the consumers because access to some services will be costlier but also hurt enterprise, entrepreneurial growth and smaller Internet businesses in contrast to what we should be doing that is prohibiting differential delivery and monopolistic and restrictive trade practices by telecom companies that may block or slow content to the consumers.
Rightly enough, in the United States the Federal Communications Commission has recently adopted very strong net neutrality rules that would prevent cable and phone companies from creating fast and slow lanes on the Internet. However, interestingly as a retrograde step, the European Union, with its 28 national governments, is considering a proposal that would allow telecommunication companies for preferential treatment and to charge more for Internet businesses such as Netflix and Google for their content to be delivered faster than other smaller companies. As a cue, our telecommunication regulator TRAI is considering whether it should adopt a provision similar to what Europe is considering. In a move that may be even worse, TRAI has also asked if telecom companies should be able to charge users extra fees for services like YouTube, WhatsApp and Skype on top of the fees people already pay for access to Internet.
Let me further explain why net neutrality more than anywhere in the world is so critical for India. In a certain sense, internet is not at all different from electricity. Sure enough electricity companies are vested with its distribution and access only and are neutral to its usage. It will be a confounding and an amusing situation if we find that the electric companies are putting different meters with differential tariffs for different makes of fridges, air conditioners and lighting. Thus Net Neutrality is not very different than the electricity that we consume daily, but here it is about the data that we consume on the internet. In broad terms, the internet service providers such as Airtel and Vodafone should not be allowed to discriminate the way we choose or use the internet or the brands that we use to surf the internet. I may mention that I do like most of us do use Quora, to write long and often boring answers; WhatsApp to message my friends and at times to never reply back; Gmail for my personal mail id when communicating; YouTube to watch the IPL or Roger Federer, over and over again. But that may all change if the telecom companies have their way.
At the centre of the storm is Airtel Zero, let us have a relook at this collaboration between Airtel and certain other companies (what has come as a breather is the news that Flipkart has pulled out of Airtel Zero) or perhaps Snapdeal and Amazon in which consumers such as us, supposedly may not have to pay for the data that we consume to use their applications. Let us now examine the consequences as we go more deep into this disingenuous act for us. Yes indeed, we may be forced to change brands as consumers will move to what is free rather that what is best. We may be forced to change our usage behavior as we may never be able to share a YouTube video because our ‘Videos Pack’ offered by the service provider may not have been bought by all. This, as mentioned earlier, would obviously discourage new competition as also further innovation and creativity as no one will dare compete for economic reasons as no one will ever partner with telecom majors. More than anything else there would be no more competition amongst the telecom service providers as other companies would be forced to do the same and thus promote unfair and restrictive trade practices.
Therefore in India as much as in Europe, policy makers are working on the misguided notion that higher charges are going to keep telecommunications companies in business that have the inherent rights as they have built networks and should be paid for the costs of creating, maintaining and upgrading networks being used and exploited by Internet companies like Google and Facebook. This is an argument that is far from the real facts as telecom companies across the globe do charge money from individuals and businesses through regular fees for access to their network that includes the operational costs. It is only incidental that costs have fallen over time as with all businesses, and yet the telecom companies still make profit as they have always done.
In our country though activists have organized campaigns against TRAI’s proposals that appears to be having some impact, yet Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, tweets that the government would study the issue closely before adopting final rules. As commented by him, the Internet – an innovation of the fast changing world – does belong to all humanity and not to a few and is a big leveler for the youth of our country having unleashed economic growth and prosperity for our country as we have witnessed in the past few years like no other invention. Internet is fast becoming a necessity, and now are the days of ‘Roti, Kapda, Makaan’ (Food, clothing, shelter) and of course you guessed it right, Bandwidth. The success of the internet as we have seen is its accessibility, the omnibus nature of its usage and versatility of its contents and delivery.
The worst thing our policy makers will ever do, if they do not leave alone the motivated dictat of the telecom companies, is tinkering with the knowledge revolution now in the making for a world more equitable and more innovative, that we in India now take pride in.