The Bold Voice of J&K

Keeping the Internet free

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Kushan Mitra

There is little doubt post facto, that the general election that just passed was India’s first ‘digital election’. This is not to belittle the immense organisational work conducted by political parties on the ground. However, the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot be divorced from the role of social media, messaging networks and other digital outreach programmes.
It is not just the elections; the new administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is actively using digital means, not least the website where the administration encourages suggestions from citizens as well as calls upon them to actively participate in governance. In the past two to three years, despite the chaos of telecom auctions, data-heavy third-generation mobile services have taken off. Even in villages that had barely been touched by copper wires (landline telephones), today the Internet streams into homes, thanks to mobile networks.
While governments, past and present, would love to take credit for this data revolution, the fact is that this was completely market-driven. There was a need and a desire by people, even in remote villages to access the Internet -and rapidly developing and affordable mobile technology made that possible.
This coupled with the manufacturing prowess of our eastern neighbour which first made mobile phones affordable and now is making extremely capable smartphones available for prices under Rs 5,000. India is becoming a country driven by data, and studies have shown how easy accessibility to voice telephony contributed to economic growth. It is more than likely that easy and affordable access to data services will have contributed to India’s economic well-being.
Easy and affordable access to voice and data has also driven social change. The mobile phone has allowed women across India to break patriarchal bounds, and because mobile phones or networks do not discriminate on the basis of caste they have helped break down those barriers as well. Today, Indians are buying travel tickets online, televisions online, and fixing their marriages online. And as the Internet has graduated from a landline-based environment to the mobile phone, much of this is being accomplished on the move on small screens.
But, despite all the successes of the data revolution in India, there is a very fundamental risk to the existence of the Internet – or rather a free and fair Internet. And that is where ‘Net neutrality’ comes into the picture.
Recent reports have suggested that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India have indicated that telecom operators are demanding extra payment for carrying certain services. The operators have railed against services such as WhatsApp, claiming that the messaging service has eaten their lunch. They feel that Internet services are crippling their business.
All of that would make sense if the telecom operators gave away the Internet for free. But they don’t; they charge fairly well to provide data services on our phone. While India has among the cheapest rates for voice telephony in the world, data charges are at par with the rest of the world.
The Internet has been a fountainhead of innovation and entrepreneurship over the past decade. Even in India, some of the most valuable companies to emerge in the past few years are firms such as Flipkart whose online commerce model is transforming the way Indians buy and sell products; there is also the mobile advertising network, InMobi, both Bangalore-based companies. There might be quibbles about the valuation of these companies, but there is little doubt that it is on the Internet where a majority of Indian entrepreneurship is taking place today.
But this is all contingent on the Internet being a place where anyone can access any service or website without any problems – a neutral Internet. However, if service providers start to give preferential access to certain services and websites at the cost of others, they transform the Internet into one where preferential access rules and money power talks.
Take the media as an example. The Internet allows users to access the website of any media outlet without any preferential access. This is not how traditional distribution works. In the newspaper industry, for example, the newspaper agent can promote a particular newspaper or magazine for extra money, they could also cripple a product by refusing to distribute it. In some cities in India, news agents declare arbitrary holidays and refuse to pick up newspapers.
Similarly, in the television industry, ‘carriage fees’ determine where a channel is carried, and while digitisation has removed some degree of discrimination, without paying these fees a television channel is doomed to obscurity with little or no viewership.
The Internet does not discriminate. A rich company can promote its web service, but short of bribing users to use its website, it cannot drive traffic to the website. A small media outlet can compete with a bigger, richer outlet without worrying that the bigger outlet is paying the operator to degrade or stifle traffic. A new messaging service can start and challenge older messaging services without paying money to an operator, the same thing applies to social media companies or online commerce companies.
While some services will always have a legs-up thanks to effective monopolies such as the Indian Railways’ ticketing service, there is nothing today that stops innovation and reach. This is because the Internet by its very nature is open. However, Indian telecom operators want to enrich themselves by becoming gatekeepers and charging a toll from websites and services to reach consumers, ignoring the fact that consumers are already paying to access the Internet. They claim that serving such services and websites costs them money.
This is nothing but disguised greed because the consumer is already paying them money. While telecom operators are possibly right in capping the amount of data consumers can use, so-called ‘Fair Usage Policies’, creating a preferential Internet destroys the basis of the Internet. It will not impact rich consumers or rich websites, but fundamentally create a new digital divide.
The Modi administration recently announced a Digital India initiative, where it said it wanted to foster digital entrepreneurship. It has said that it will spend upwards of one lakh crore rupees on this project. While this is a laudable, it will serve no purpose if Indian telecom operators are allowed to build barriers on the Internet.

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