Net neutrality prevails : TRAI kills Free Basics

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India says ‘no’ to differential tariff for data access, proposes minimum daily fine of Rs 50,000 on violators

New Delhi: In a boost to net neutrality and a blow to Facebook and other operators offering differential data tariffs, telecom watchdog Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) yesterday barred them from charging discriminatory prices for web access.

A screenshot of the message that received widespread criticism for being a sly move by Facebook to gather numbers for it Free Basics programme
A screenshot of the message that received widespread criticism for being a sly move by Facebook to gather numbers for it Free Basics programme 

In a far-reaching recommendation, the regulatory body proposed a penalty of R50,000 for each day on service providers if they flout the order. This penalty would be subject to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh.

"No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content," TRAI chairperson R S Sharma said unveiling the details of the regulations, effective yesterday, titled ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016’.

The new rules come amid a long-running debate on net neutrality, wherein Facebook has been facing flak for its ‘Free Basics’ platform, while operators like Airtel have been at the receiving end for similar plans announced earlier.

The order is seen as a setback to Facebook, which had plans to roll out Free Basics, providing access to a limited set of websites for free. This was seen as undermining the equal-access precepts of net neutrality. Ironically, Facebook’s was launched a year back in India, which was later named Free Basics.

Expressing the company’s disappointment over TRAI’s decision, a Facebook spokesperson said, "Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings."

tweet talk
@OfficeOfRG: Welcome TRAI’s ruling in support of #NetNeutrality. Big win for internet users in India!(1/2)
@PritishNandy: A big win for #NetNeutrality! The @narendramodi Government deserves all kudos for the TRAI decision.
@quizderek: Teamwork wins #NetNeutrality This is also about the big telcos not becoming big bullies
@abdullah_omar: Please DM me any links or suggestions of sites/articles. Thanks #NetNeutrality
@doubtinggaurav: Now we have #NetNeutrality can we have #WageNeutrality as well ? No employer should be able to discriminate on wages for same kind of work
@Joydas: Well TRAI’ed Mark Zuckerberg. Hard Luck #NetNeutrality

Nikhil Pahwa, on behalf of
This outcome indicates what happens when young people actually participate in a governance process. There’s far too much cynicism about governments not doing the right thing, and we hope that this is the beginning of something new: of people believing that they can make a difference, and persevering towards helping form policies that ensure equity and freedom for everyone. There are many Internet related issues that have still to be looked at, especially Internet shutdowns, censorship and the encryption policy. These impact all of us, and we should be ready to voice our point of view, and the government looks like it is listening.

Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society
It’s not our preferred policy response, but it has many strengths. First thing is the gravity, the core of the regulation, that’s spectacular, second is clarity, it’s very clear. The regulation is self-explanatory. In the memorandum, it says, "a good regulation should eliminate uncertainity for various factors". And they have done it well. Also, there is only one exemption, which is very rare in most regulations. So, congratulations to for the outstanding work.

Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director, Access Now
The ruling is very strong, development from TRAI which has acted to protect net neutrality meaningfully and to address the issue of zero rating. They have outlined the global best standard on this, and they have put it there. And that’s fantastic. We have now at least attempts to have clear rules of the road and clear standards that everyone can follow. It’s a very strong ruling for TRAI.

In a transparent ruling, TRAI has explicitly said "no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content" and "No service provider shall enter into any agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content." But the association has a slight concern on the exception and the exception to the exception as to how this entire thing will pan out. The exception states "... regulation shall not apply to tariffs for data services over closed electronic communications networks..."
— Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) as told to Hassan Kamal

What is differential pricing?

Differential pricing or zero-rating is a practice wherein Internet service providers do not take into account the content downloaded by subscribers from some platforms while computing their usage tariff. These become free or differentially priced. While those batting for Net Neutrality want uniformity in such tariff, those on the other side of the debate feel this may be impossible because service providers have to invest huge amounts of money on infrastructure and different bandwidths call for different level of investments.

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