April released a video explaining net neutrality and it instantly went viral. As of 23 April the video was seen 2,627,000 times on YouTube.
And that forced Sachin Bansal to back-track and Flipkart had to break the partnership with Airtel Zero. By this time, the net neutrality debate has extended to target internet.org the free Internet initiative of Face- book. On 15 April, cleartrip.com, walked out of the partnership with internet.org. Facebook claims that with the internet.org initiative it wants to connect the unconnected people of the world with Internet. The Internet Facebook talks about is not the almost limitless Internet that we use. That Internet is what Facebook decides is Internet and then labels it ‘basic services’. Facebook asks various companies, which it thinks are basic services, to partner with internet, org. It is said that no money changes hands in this partnership. Facebook only pays its telecom operator partners for the data consumed by inter- net.org users. And they say it is their contribution to attract new first time Internet users. In India, its partner is Reliance Communications. Internet.org offers 38 Websites or Internet services for free in India. This includes Facebook, OLX,
NewsHunt, etc. The world over, more than 800 million people are connected by the internet.org initiative.
Soon after cleartrip. com pulled out, NDTV also walked away and Times group says it is committed to net neutrality and will pull out from internet.org if its competitors also pull out. And that forced Face- book CEO Mark Zuckerberg to write a blog post on 16 April. This shows Facebook’s seriousness for India. Zuckerberg strongly defended internet.org by saying it is an initiative to provide universal access to basic Internet services.
But, experts don’t agree. “Internet.org might appear to be good or philanthropic, but in the long-term
it’ll be very harmful,” says Alex. “A way to do philanthropy is to sponsor broadband connections in villages. That’s the genuine way to support the Internet.” On internet.org one can access Bing, which is Microsoft’s search engine for free, but pay to access Google; access Babajobs.
com, an informal and entry-level job portal for free, but pay for much more popular naukri.com. “They’ve sold it as a ‘solution for poor countries’ but what they really mean is that it’s a ‘solution to keep countries poor’,” says Murthy about internet.org in his Linkedln post. His post, as of 23 April, was read 1, 90,000 times.
Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has a different take on the debate. “Net opportunity is adjunct to Net Neutrality,” Rajan S. Mathews, director general, COAI was quoted as saying. “The term should be broadened to include net opportunity.”
But, Murthy feels there is something more to what the COAI chief is saying. He alleged that, “The telcos,
their cosy cabal, the COAI and the author of the TRAI paper are trying to push through anti-net-neutrality in India.”
The net neutrality debate in India is very recent, but, many parallels were drawn to the debate in the US where US President Barack Obama had recommended the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) preserve net neutrality in November, last year. The debate for net neutrality has been going on since the 1990s in the US. Also, between 2005 and 2012 five attempts to pass bills for maintaining net neutrality had failed. The debate in the US was related to ISPs creating fast lanes and giving preferential access. The debate in India is for discriminatory access to Internet services.
The deadline to give public comments to TRAI on its consultation paper on net neutrality is over. More than 1 million e-mails have been sent to TRAI. It now remains to be seen what TRAI has to say. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even though Internet savvy, has not voiced an opinion. However, Ravishankar Prasad, minister for communications 8c IT, says the government is for net neutrality.
NASSCOM also came out in support of net neutrality. “Any stifling regulations restricting access to Internet or Internet platforms and services would not only seriously hamper this prospect of development, but also suppress growth and success of innovation-driven tech startups and SME companies,” says Sanjeev Bhikchandani, chair, NASSCOM, Internet Council. NASSCOM also called on the government to clearly articulate net neutrality principles. It will soon share its responses on the consultative paper released by TRAI.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of World Wide Web and founder of World Wide Web Consortium is also for net neutrality. And the only solution for preserving it is a law. The government of India must define net neutrality and enact a law to preserve it.
♦ ROHIT PANCHAL [email protected]