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India Sets Strict New Net Neutrality Rules

Indians surf the Internet at an Internet cafe, in Allahabad, India, April 27, 2011.
Indians surf the Internet at an Internet cafe, in Allahabad, India, April 27, 2011.

In India, advocates of net neutrality have welcomed new rules by the telecom regulator that have blocked efforts by Facebook to offer free but limited access to the web in the country’s fast growing Internet market.

In a widely awaited ruling, the Telecom Regulator Authority of India (TRAI) said on Monday that “no service provider shall charge differential pricing on the basis of application, platforms or websites or sources." It will impose penalties of $735 a day if the regulations are broken.

Kiran Jonnalagadda, who was among a group of 10 that launched an impassioned campaign called Save the Internet, says they have won a “fabulous” victory against large corporations to ensure equal web access for millions.

“We were up against the most powerful companies in the world, we had no chance of fighting Airtel last year, we had no chance of fighting Facebook. I think the only reason it worked is that we were on the side of facts, the opposition was not,” says Jonnalagadda.

FILE - Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India.
FILE - Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India.

Debate on Airtel

The campaign on net neutrality snowballed into a nationwide public debate after an Indian telecom company, Airtel, launched a marketing platform last April on which it planned to offer customers access with no data charges to certain Internet services and sites.

In recent weeks, the focus turned to “Free Basics”, a service being offered by Facebook on mobile phones to a handful of sites in areas such as communication, healthcare, and education.

Saying it wanted to vastly expand Internet access in poor, rural areas, Facebook had launched a massive advertising campaign in support of the platform. Only about 300 million in the country of 1.2 billion people have access to the net, many just through mobile devices.

But campaigners slammed Free Basics as “poor Internet for poor people” and said it would create a “walled garden” in which Facebook would control the content it offered users. Leading Indian technology entrepreneurs and university professors also called on the government to guard against attempts by Internet giants to turn the country into a “digital colony.”

Many of them have applauded the regulator’s move to strengthen net neutrality.

Ban on differential pricing

However, some are raising questions about the the complete ban on differential pricing announced by the regulator. That includes the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society research group, which says India has put in place the most stringent net neutrality regulations across the world. Its executive director, Sunil Abraham, says TRAI cited the examples of the Netherlands and Chile, but the ban on differential pricing in those countries is not as absolute as the one notified in India.

“We think that if proper technological safeguards and other market safeguards are put in place, it would be possible to have both — to have rapid growth in Internet access and reduced harm that emerge[s] from network neutrality violations,” says Abraham.

Indeed, the last word may not have been said on net neutrality in India as big telecom operators are expected to mount legal challenges to the regulator’s ruling in the coming months.

Expressing disappointment with India’s ruling, the Cellular Operators Association of India has called the ban on differential pricing a “welfare reducing measure” that could block an avenue for “less advantaged citizens to move to increased economic growth and prosperity by harnessing the power of the Internet.”

In a statement, Facebook has said “we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet.”

But after having tasted victory, the volunteers at Save the Internet, who have grown from about 10 to 100 in the last year, have already set their sights on another aspect of net neutrality besides differential pricing.

“The campaign is not going to retire because this is not the end of it. There is also discrimination on the basis of speed, which the regulator has not taken up yet,” says Jonnalagadda.