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Equality in cyber-space

Equality in cyber-space

When two years ago, a mini video titled "Save the Internet" surfaced, it was shared by millions within days. The comedy sketch channel 'All India Bakchod' (AIB) was behind it. The message of the video was that internet service providers were positioned in such a way as to take away the freedom and neutrality of internet, which is the elixir of information exchange, and that the government was facilitating it. It was after this video became viral over social media that the concept of 'net neutrality' became the talking point of the common man.

Following the recognition that net neutrality was a fundamental issue much beyond a technical concept, and closely related to freedom of communication, that the push of "save the neutrality" gathered momentum. Within a fortnight, Telecom Authority of India (TRAI) received a million letters on this subject, which eventually forced the regulatory authority to conduct a detailed enquiry. After a year and a half, when TRAI's proposals have now been released, it can fairly be concluded that the campaign started by that comedy channel has achieved success.

Net neutrality envisages that equal opportunity should be offered to all sites and services over the internet, and different rates based on popularity or size of the site should not be applied. Once a consumer obtains an internet connection, it is for him alone to decide how to use the data he is entitled to. He is the one to decide which sites to visit and which applications to use, and the service provider has no right to charge special rates for certain sites. This is an internationally accepted principle.

However, an approach different from this was adopted by certain countries which got reflected for the first time in December 2014, when a few telecom service providers (TSP's) demanded to levy extra charges for certain services in the internet. And Airtel imposed special charge for the use of voice over internet protocol (VOIP) calls via apps like Whatsapp and Skype. It was after this that "Save the Internet" was released followed by a people's cyber campaign against it. When the campaign gathered strength, the TSP's withdrew the extra charges. And Department of Telecom (DOT) appointed a committee of experts headed by A.K. Bhargava. When this Committee submitted its interim report in July 2015, it corroborated the concerns expressed by cyber activists. The committee, which refused to budge before the pressures of the TSP's, recommended making legislation to ensure net neutrality. The latest proposals from TRAI are to be treated as a follow-up the same report.

What TRAI Chairman RS Sharma said at a media briefing the other day about the recommendations in overall support of net neutrality, merits special attention. He said "The overarching goal was to keep the Indian context in mind. From an Indian context, India has a huge population, huge things are going to happen on the internet. It is important that we keep this open…. Therefore, it is important that this platform be kept open and free and not cannibalized." This position espoused by Sharma can be seen as the synopsis of TRAI's recommendations, and include the recommendation that licence regulations of TSP's/ISP's should be amended to guarantee net neutrality, although some aspects still do remain vague. At the same time some of the recommendations do some misgivings not entirely minor. For example, conditional permission is granted to SP's to adjust broadband net speeds. It remains to be seen how the service providers will exploit this. Further, the fact that TRAI has excluded from its scope the SP's providing internet service through their own network, is seen as a dilution of net neutrality. We have seen the example of Facebook who once made a bid to grab rural India's internet monopoly through plans like Therefore, such relaxations by TRAI may create a setting for the repetition of such moves.

It may be coincidental but striking that TRAI's recommendations came out the very next day after the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a recommendation that the net neutrality laws introduced by former president Obama should be nullified. Obama's own internet policy was framed at the same time when the net neutrality movement was growing strong in India. Now Donald Trump is trying to topple that policy in a move that is likely to cause tremors in cyber politics. It is during such policy changes that TRAI has stood in support of net neutrality which certainly it is a victory for All India Bakchod.

Matters having come this far, the remainig question is: What will be the response of Modi government to the TRAI recommendations? No doubt, these recommendations will check the exploitation of TSP's to a great extent, and therefore the government is very likely to face big pressures. If the government is able to survive such pressures and keep its promise given to Parliament that it supports net neutrality, it will be a landmark decision of the country in the cause of equality in cyberspace.

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