DoT panel against Facebook's Internet.org; ok with Airtel Zero

New Delhi: A DoT panel on net neutrality is learnt to have opposed projects like Facebook's Internet.org, which allow access to certain websites without mobile data charges, while suggesting that similar plans such as Airtel Zero be allowed with prior clearance from Trai.

The panel has stated however that "collaborations between telecom operators and content providers that enable such gate-keeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged", sources said.

Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had directed the Department of Telecom (DoT) to form a panel on net neutrality and give its recommendation on the matter.

Net neutrality implies that equal treatment be accorded to all Internet traffic and no priority be given to an entity or company based on payment to content or service providers such as telecom companies, which is seen as discriminatory.

The neutrality debate heated up in India after telecom operator Airtel launched a platform, Airtel Zero, that would allow free access of some websites on it network. However, the companies were asked to pay Airtel for joining the platform.

Internet.org, on the other hand, is a Facebook-led initiative which aims to bring 5 billion people online in partnership with tech giants like Samsung and Qualcomm as well as mobile operators. In India, it had tied up with Reliance Communications.

Sources said the DoT panel has stated that this project has been criticised for violating net neutrality principle and favouring Facebook's own services over its rivals. Facebook, however, at various forums has said that the project is pro- Internet access and hence does not violate the principle.

They said the panel however has favoured allowing of zero-rating platforms, like Airtel Zero, but with a rider that operators should take prior permission of telecom regulator Trai to launch it or take action against such plan if they are founding violating principle of net neutrality, sources said. The DoT did not respond to e-mail query send in this regard, while Facebook spokesperson said "Until we have the DoT panel findings we are not in a position to comment."

The Internet.org earlier provided restricted Internet access to subscribers RCom, the panel is learnt to have noted.

"The panel observed that until April 2015, Internet.org users could have free access for only a few websites and Facebook's was seen as gatekeeper in determining what websites were in that list. This was seen as violating net neutrality. In early May 2015, due to severe criticism, Facebook opened it to websites that meet certain criteria," the source said.

It also observed that large organisations with market have started creating closed ecosystems which profit their business model in the long run. Sources said the DoT panel report has been submitted to the Telecom Minister.

The panel has suggested that fine or penalty should be imposed on telecom operators if their plan is found in violation of net neutrality -- which is to be defined by government.

"There have been business models by large organisations to increase their user base but unfortunately these initiatives are considered non-competitive, restrictive and in conflict with net neutrality principles," said the source, sharing details of the report.

The market for content provision indicates that clear market leaders emerge in a short while and if they are able to dictate the path to specific content, then the principles of non-discriminatory access from a user view point can be compromised.

"The committee, therefore, recommended that content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value even if it is for an ostensible public purpose," the source said.

While at the same time, the panel approved allowing of zero rating platform after telecom operators compared it with toll free number.

The committee after consideration of all opinions expressed by net neutrality proponents and network operators felt that there are multitude possibilities in designing tariff plans and everything cannot be validated in advance on parameters of net neutrality.

The panel proposed "ex-ante determination" and "ex-post regulation" model for dealing with tariff plan including zero rating.

Under ex-ante determination, the panel has proposed telecom operators to follow current practice of filing tariffs before the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the regulator should carefully vet it on scale of net neutrality before giving its nod.

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