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India Unveils New Recommendations to Reinforce Strict Net Neutrality

  • Anjana Pasricha

FILE - An activist wears a mask as he holds a placard during a demonstration supporting net neutrality, in Bangalore, India, .

India has strongly backed a free and open Internet, with its telecom regulator recommending stringent regulations on net neutrality - the concept of ensuring equal access to the web — saying it is important the Internet is not “cannibalized.”

India’s push for net neutrality comes at a time when the United States has unveiled plans to roll back regulations on it.

“The core principles of net neutrality, non-discriminatory treatment of all content, we’ve upheld them,” R.S. Sharma, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI, told reporters as he unveiled recommendations following a year-long debate.

These proposals seek to prohibit any service provider from blocking or offering preferential data speeds which essentially means that telecom providers cannot create “fast lanes” for higher paying customers or speed up or slow down websites and apps.

FILE - Indians use their mobile phones in New Delhi, India, Sept. 22, 2015.
FILE - Indians use their mobile phones in New Delhi, India, Sept. 22, 2015.

Equal access

Advocates of net neutrality, who have led an impassioned battle to ensure equal web access, welcomed the latest recommendations, saying that these would ensure that India is among countries with the strictest net neutrality rules in the world. Last year India put in place rules that prohibited telecoms from differential pricing.

India’s IT industry lobby, NASSCOM, in a statement, said the reaffirmation of net neutrality would be a “shot in the arm” for the country’s digital economy.

Nikhil Pahwa, one of the founders of Internet Freedom Foundation, which has campaigned for strict net neutrality, says open access to the Internet is critical for India.

“This is really, really essential. It is important for India because we are at the cusp of great Internet growth and innovation with lots of start-ups coming up and students and people developing things online,” he said.

India’s stand on net neutrality had last year effectively blocked efforts by Facebook to offer free but limited access to the web in the country’s fast growing Internet market.

FILE - An Indian man surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016.
FILE - An Indian man surfs a Facebook page at an Internet cafe in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016.

The company said it wanted to expand access to the net in poor, rural areas but digital rights activists had slammed the plan as “poor Internet for poor people” and said it would create a “walled garden” in which Facebook would control the content it offered users. A Facebook spokesperson at the time said the company was disappointed by the outcome but would continue its efforts to "eliminate barriers."

80 million users

Supporters of an open Internet point out that India’s experience demonstrates that net neutrality rules are not hampering access to the Internet in a country where many people are still not connected to the web.

“In the last year alone we have added about 80 million Internet users. There has been a substantial increase in Internet access in the country and it is increasing rapidly despite net neutrality. So this notion that net neutrality is adversarial to growth of Internet access or to sustainability of mobile operators is incorrect,” said Pahwa.

FILE - Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during a hearing in Washington.
FILE - Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during a hearing in Washington.

India’s position on ensuring an open Internet is in contrast to the U.S., where last week the U.S. Federal Communications Commission unveiled plans to repeal net neutrality rules, saying they discourage Internet service providers from making investments in their network to provide better and faster online access.

India’s strict net neutrality rules have disappointed private telecom providers, who had hoped for some leeway in the latest recommendations.

In an oblique reference to the U.S. position, a statement from the telecom industry’s main lobby group, the Cellular Operators Association of India, said that at a time when, globally, countries are adopting a more “market oriented, and market driven approach to net neutrality in order to not stifle development, innovation, proliferation and growth of the Internet, we believe TRAI should have adopted a light touch approach to net neutrality.”

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