There is noth­ing neu­tral about net neu­tral­ity

Consumer Voice - - Editor's Voice - Padma Joint edi­tor

The de­bate around net neu­tral­ity has brought the ‘con­scious’ In­dian con­sumer to the fore—like never be­fore per­haps. TRAI may not have been pre­pared for the del­uge of emails (more than a mil­lion) pe­ti­tion­ing it to pro­tect net neu­tral­ity, or Air­tel and Flip­kart for the back­lash.

The charge at the cen­tre of the de­bate is this: that a tele­com com­pany of­fer­ing users free ac­cess to one web­site (with the lat­ter pay­ing the telco for such free ac­cess given to con­sumers), while charg­ing for other web­sites, is dis­crim­i­na­tory.

Flip­kart had signed a ‘zero rat­ing’ agree­ment with Air­tel as per which Air­tel users would have been able to ac­cess Flip­ for free, with Flip­kart pay­ing Air­tel for data con­sumed by users. As of to­day, that pub­li­cally damned agree­ment stands aban­doned. The out­cry was too huge and a ‘boy­cott Flip­kart’ move­ment was threat­en­ing to over­turn any edge the com­pany was hop­ing to gain by means of the ‘more ac­cess for me’ ar­range­ment.

There could be a lot of truth to things be­ing said by the for-net neu­tral­ity side. That left to the big ones, peo­ple may end up think­ing Google, Face­book, YouTube and their ilk are the In­ter­net. That it’s es­sen­tially mo­nop­o­lis­tic and an­ti­com­pet­i­tive. That all in­no­va­tion will be sti­fled.

That’s one side to the story. The other side says telcos have a ra­tio­nale to charge dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions ac­cord­ing to the data traf­fic gen­er­ated and the type of con­nec­tiv­ity pa­ram­e­ters (high avail­abil­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity, se­cure, etc.). As they put it, dif­fer­en­tial pric­ing is not just in tele­com alone. For ex­am­ple, air­lines charge dif­fer­ently for the space us­age for first class, busi­ness and econ­omy class, and pro­vide pri­or­ity check-in and spe­cial­ized ser­vice ac­cord­ing to the class.

The de­bate is far from cool­ing off, even as we now wait for TRAI’s rec­om­men­da­tions on net neu­tral­ity. One thing the whole episode has told us is that there is some­thing to be said for an open, rel­a­tively trans­par­ent, in­clu­sive and en­cour­ag­ing-of-par­tic­i­pa­tion process. When In­dia’s tele­com reg­u­la­tor asked us public to re­spond with our com­ments, we did, and how! There is no way such a de­fin­i­tive and re­sound­ing ‘no’ can be dis­missed slightly. That the ‘zero rat­ing’ has landed on ground zero face­down – at least for now – is proof enough.

So­cial me­dia had a cat­a­lyst’s role, of course. It helped build up the ini­tial mur­murs of dis­sent into a huge public out­cry. One may won­der if things would have reached such a crescendo if ac­cess to so­cial me­dia like Face­book and Twit­ter was lop­sided. Iron­i­cally enough, a sim­i­lar scheme called in­ter­net-org, be­gun by Face­book, found it­self at the re­ceiv­ing end of the back­lash that was gath­er­ing storm on Face­book, among other medi­ums. Apps like Clear­trip and some be­long­ing to me­dia firms like NDTV ex­ited the in­ter­ plat­form af­ter the con­tro­versy.

The dra­matic turn of af­fairs has given sup­port­ers of net neu­tral­ity the higher ground, much more than would have been the case had Flip­kart not de­cided to join Air­tel Zero in the first place. They may very well be say­ing ‘thank you, Flip­kart.’

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