FILE - A worker cleans a logo of Bharti Airtel at its zonal office building in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.
FILE - A worker cleans a logo of Bharti Airtel at its zonal office building in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.

NEW DELHI - In India, hundreds of thousands have joined a public campaign to ensure equal access to the Internet as an impassioned debate engulfs the country on what is called “net neutrality.”

The controversy heated up after one of the country’s main telecom providers launched a new marketing platform, Airtel Zero, where Internet businesses could pay to have users browse their sites for free.

This triggered a nationwide backlash from those who fear that this could deny equal access to the Internet. They are demanding that the Internet remain a level playing field with all data getting equal treatment - whether it is a student’s blog or an online company with deep pockets.

Celebrities, professionals, entrepreneurs and students, are among the tens of thousands who have signed up for an online campaign “savetheinternet.”

Petitions are being sent at a furious pace to the telecom regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which invited public comments last month on various proposals such as allowing telecom companies to charge for services like Skype and YouTube.

One of the persons behind the campaign to ensure net neutrality, Kiran Jonnalagadda, in Bangalore, has been taken aback by the overwhelming response.

“400,000 users have on their own copy, pasted an email from our website and mailed it to TRAI from their own computers. It is not an automated script. There is nothing is going on from our servers. People are doing it by themselves on their own computers. That is incredible. We did not think they would do it,” said Jonnalagadda.

The strident public criticism on the issue has already had an impact. One of the country’s biggest online retailers, Flipkart, said on Tuesday that it had scrapped discussions with Airtel Zero on giving users free access to its app.

Flipkart announced its decision after some angry supporters of net neutrality denounced the company saying it would get an unfair advantage over its competitors. Some users even threatened to boycott the online retailer.

Supporters of allowing telecoms to give preferential, free access to Internet sites say providers need the funds to expand infrastructure and net coverage in countries like India, where broadband access is still limited. Opponents say such practices allow for preferential treatment for some websites over others, creating a disadvantage for upstart websites that would inhibit innovation.

Pranesh Prakash at the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society supports net neutrality. However he said that under certain conditions, companies could pay for customers using their data.

“They anyway have to pay money for using data. Right now what some companies are offering to do is not only to pay money for their data use, but also for customers data use. That can be anti-competitive, for instance if there is in exclusive deal, or if the terms of the deal are not transparent. But just the fact that a company is offering to pay for its customers data does not by itself make it anti-competitive. For instance toll free numbers are not considered anti-competitive by anyone,” said Prakash.

The government says it will wait for a report from a six-member committee due in May before it takes a position on the issue. But net users hope the government is leaning toward net neutrality.

Earlier this week, Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, called the Internet “one of the finest creations of the human mind.” 

“It is the property of the entire human race, not of any country or of any society. Net to become truly global must have integral link with the local and when we talk of digital inclusion, it is equally important it must be available to those who are underprivileged and on the margins,” said Prasad.

India is one of the world’s biggest Internet markets after the United States and China with an estimated 180 million users. It is not the only country to debate net neutrality - it has also been a subject of intense discussion in the United States and Europe.