India’s fight over net neutrality is back again
GS 2 : Government Policies & Interventions
- Telecom operators have shifted from requiring payment to manage scarce network resources to requiring payment for massive network usage.
About Net neutrality:
- In the last few decades, a variety of Internet gateways have emerged in the form of telecom service providers, personal computers and smartphones, operating systems, etc.
- When these gateways enable and restrict access to other gateways or networks, however, the Internet’s openness is compromised.
- Net neutrality is the principle of an open, equal internet for all users, regardless of the device, application, platform, or content consumed.
- Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, coined the term.
- It is used as an umbrella term in public policy and regulatory discussions regarding internet freedom of expression, service competition, innovation, pricing, and internet traffic management.
- Therefore, Net Neutrality ensures that telecom and Internet service providers must treat all Internet data equally, without discriminating against or charging differently based on user, content, website, platform, or application.
- The connection providers are prohibited from engaging in practises such as blocking, throttling, or favouring certain content.
The current demand & debate:
- COAI’s demand:
- The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio, the three largest telecom operators in India, has demanded that platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp pay a portion of their revenue to cover network costs.
Arguments in favour of the demand:
Paying for the infrastructure
- This concept of paying for the use of infrastructure is an excellent concept wherein any entity that uses another entity’s infrastructure should pay for it.
- However, the infrastructure provider’s [telecom operators’] revenues should also be shared proportionally with the entity using the infrastructure.
No infrastructure with content providers
- The apparent claim of the telecom operators is that content providers do not construct any of this infrastructure independently.
- The infrastructure of any communication network consists of data centres, undersea cables, content hosting centres, content delivery networks (CDNs), etc., all of which are constructed by OTT platforms.
Arguments against the demand:
- No open Internet:
- According to critics, charging a network fee would undermine the fundamental nature of the Internet.
- Net neutrality advocates and content providers have argued that imposing such a fee, even on a limited number of large players, would distort the Internet’s architecture, in which content providers and telecom operators enjoy a symbiotic relationship without charging each other, and users pay both in the form of fees or advertisements, or both.
- Telecom operators and platforms support “each other’s growth, and neither can exist without the other”.
Universal Service Obligation Fund:
- According to critics, the government could reduce spectrum fees and support telecom companies with the Universal Service Obligation Fund instead of meeting this demand (USOF).
Democratic exchange of content:
- Supporters of net neutrality believe that the internet should remain free, open, and nondiscriminatory, and that this is necessary for a democratic exchange of ideas and information, ethical business practises, fair competition, and ongoing innovation.
TRAI’s stand in favour of Net neutrality:
- In 2016, India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) ruled in favour of Net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally.
- The telecom regulator determined that programmes such as Free Basics by Facebook (now Meta) and telecom operators’ plans to charge extra for data calls using applications such as Viber would be prohibited because all Internet access must be priced equally.
- In 2018, the Department of Telecommunications incorporated net neutrality into the Unified Licence, to which all telecom operators and Internet service providers are subject.
- Similarly, telecom operators in the European Union demand usage fees from content providers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a prominent Internet rights advocacy organisation in the United States, issued a warning against such actions.
- This year, the EU is conducting consultations on the issue prior to finalising its position.
- In 2014, when the Net neutrality movement took root in the United States, the debate was not about the prices consumers paid.
- It was a result of telecom operators attempting to get companies such as Netflix to pay them for the massive amounts of traffic they generated on their networks.
- The United States had and still has programmes such as T-Mobile Binge On, in which traffic from certain content providers is ‘zero-rated,’ meaning it is not counted against users’ data limits.
- In the years following the launch of 4G services by Reliance Jio, the Indian telecom industry has significantly outpaced the U.S. in terms of data consumed per month on mobile Internet connections.
- Now, Indian telecom operators are adopting the aggressive strategy adopted by American carriers a decade ago.
Daily Mains Question
Discuss the recent demand by telecom operators that content-creating platforms pay a portion of their revenue to cover network costs. What is India’s policy regarding Net neutrality?