There's no middle path on net neutrality: Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Vague report

  • DoT's net neutrality report talks about philosophy, quotes
  • It doesn't do its basic job: set rules for telcos & define consumers' rights
  • It bans Internet.org, which isn't a gatekeeper, but not Airtel Zero
  • It doesn't explain how this makes sense

Clear reasons

  • The government doesn't have a clear stand on net neutrality
  • 2-3 big telecom firms 'heavily influenced' the report
  • Panel ignored evidence, submissions and accepted telcos' assertions

More in the interview

  • Data calls: free if domestic, chargeable if international. How will it work?
  • Why are telcos against net neutrality?

In March this year, the telecom department set up a panel to examine whether the internet in India should be neutral. Its report, submitted on 16 July, doesn't inspire confidence.

The panel was formed after a proposal to give service providers 'preferential access' to internet data lanes for a fee sparked public outrage. Such an arrangement would essentially end net neutrality as we know it.

Bared down to its core, net neutrality means that Google, for example, can't pay a higher fee to transmit data faster than a start-up search engine. This principle keeps the internet a level playing field, ensuring that an independent blogger and a global corporation have the same digital rights.

Some big internet firms though want to skew this equation through zero-rating services. Zero-rating allows an internet or data service provider such as Airtel Zero to offer free access to certain websites or services.

The zero-rating lobby claims that in a country with low internet penetration, low-to-no data charges for certain services will bring a large number of people online.

But here's the catch: which websites will be free? In the long run, only those that can pay the services providers like Airtel and Reliance. The ones that can't will fall off the grid, or be available at a premium.

These were the issues the DoT panel had to examine. It sought inputs from various government departments, telecom service providers, civil society and academia. It also took note of the TRAI consultation paper, written submissions, emails and representations from the public.

Given the range of inputs, the panel's much-awaited report was expected to be clear and certain in its recommendations. It's anything but.

How is one to make sense of it then?

Catch asked Rajeev Chandrasekhar, one of the more cogent voices in the debate, to explain what the report is about, what it entails for net neutrality.

Chandrasekhar, a two-term Rajya Sabha MP, has a reputation as an 'activist MP', advocating issues from governance reform to internet freedom. Excerpts from the conversation:

SS: The telecom department has released its net neutrality report. It unhesitatingly recommends that the core principles of net neutrality must be adhered to. What's your reading of it?
RC: The report only says what you want to hear. In a nutshell, it is absolutely imprecise, vague and doesn't do what it is supposed to do: set the rules of the game for telecom companies and define the rights of consumers.

And for this reason, it should ideally have been just two and a half pages long.

Instead, it's 115 pages of philosophy, quotes, ideology, management principles. It says everything for everybody but nothing precisely. The only thing it doesn't talk about is religion and spirituality. This is classic bureaucracy.

The report is supposed to lay out the rules for net neutrality. When consumers are asking for clarity, you must give clarity.

When the government is imprecise about what it wants to say, everybody else walks the same path.

There's a Parliamentary Committee that's engaged with this issue, and TRAI, of course, is dealing with it.

The reason these opinions lack relevance is because the government itself is imprecise. Because of its inability to define its stand, it's ceding the space of policy making to everybody else.

SS: On the zero-rating front, the report apparently makes no reference to Airtel Zero but devotes over a page and half to Internet.org. Why so? Do you see these two platforms as fundamentally different?

RC: There is a deep suspicion that in almost everything that the DoT and TRAI do, they are influenced heavily by corporates and telecom companies.

That is the real issue with TRAI's consultation paper, against which 1.3 million people have voiced their protest.

It was expected that the DoT would tread a new pro-consumer path, free from the influence and rhetoric of telcos. Unfortunately, this report reads too close to what the telcos are talking about.

DoT's report is 115 pages of philosophy, quotes, ideology. Only thing missing is spirituality, says @rajeev_mp

There is a very strong feeling and suspicion that the report was heavily influenced by two or three of the bigger telecom companies.

I think zero-rating is the heart and soul of net neutrality. Any report that says zero-rating would be addressed on a 'case-to-case' basis fails the test of a neutral internet.

Basically, there is no prohibition on gate-keeping by telcos. A clear pro-consumer approach would have been to ban such a system.

Instead, they have gone to Facebook's Internet.org, which is not a telecom company and so can't gatekeep, and said it is prohibited. Somebody has to explain why.

SS: What makes you suspect that the report was heavily influenced by two or three of the bigger telecom companies?

RC: The biggest opposition to net neutrality is the telcos claim that their revenues are impacted by OTT (over-the-top) services such as WhatsApp. This argument has been reiterated by the DoT.

The telcos main argument is that since both they and the OTTs provide voice services, both should be on a level playing field. The DoT has blindly repeated this, with no evidence, argument, dissection or analysis.

Enough evidence was presented to the DoT, including by me in a formal presentation, that the two are not identical.

Enough evidence was presented that the telcos are not losing money; that they are, in fact, earning significant data revenues.

The DoT ignored all of this and blindly accepted the assertion of the telcos. This leads you to believe only one thing: that there is no pushback from the DoT on this issue.

SS: Traffic management is something the report indicates may be allowed. But do traffic management practices not violate net neutrality? Can't it be misused?

RC: Traffic management and prioritisation is fine as long as it is not paid. For example, the government can prioritise an SOS ambulance service but it's wrong for it to be a paid service.

Second, paid prioritisation and deep packet inspection can't be permitted. It affects consumer privacy. If Airtel is snooping on the content of every packet that emerges from your phone, it's not acceptable.

But, broadly, prioritisation on a non-paid basis is not a problem.

SS: There's no clarity on VoIP services like Skype, WhatsApp. The report seems to suggest these can be allowed for 'international' calls but not domestic. How is this to be enforced? Is it even feasible?

RC: This is nonsense. It's not possible without inspection. Who is going to determine and differentiate between international and national data calls? Is the government going to invest Rs 5,000 crore to set up infrastructure for this? It's impractical.

And it doesn't address net neutrality in any way. Which is why, after pushback from people like me, the government immediately clarified that this isn't its official position.

The telecom minister, in a press conference immediately after the release of the report, stated that this wasn't the government's decision.

SS: How much of this report do you expect to become policy?

RC: None of it. I don't think the enlightened internet users of this country are going to accept nonsense like this.

The government cannot walk a middle path on net neutrality. Here, rights and wrongs have to be clearly defined.

There is an internet that is public, fair, accessible, transparent and that does not belong to anybody; all consumers can innovate equally.

@rajeev_mp: The argument that a part of the internet will be given to Airtel & Reliance will not be tolerated

The argument that one-fourth of the internet will be given to Airtel and Reliance while three-fourths the public can play merry with will not be tolerated.

The internet has to be preserved in it's current form, as a collaborative platform with no owner. Individual consumers and owners have built the internet and it has to remain that way.

Any effort by the government to allow telcos to gatekeep the internet and carve it into separate islands is a violation of net neutrality. The people will fight it in the toughest manner possible.

SS: What would you have liked to see in this report?

RC: I would have liked to see a three-page report that clearly lays out the Government of India's stance on net neutrality. That's all.

SS: Do you expect the Parliamentary Committee studying the issue to do that? And what about TRAI's recommendations?

RC: No, the Parliamentary Committee is a recommendation body.

As for TRAI, the regulator, it's headless. It doesn't have a chairman. TRAI has to complete it's consultation paper and give a report to the government.

The government can either reject or accept the report, suggest changes and take it to the cabinet. But since TRAI is headless, the process isn't moving forward. Ambiguity rules.

Soumya Shankar

Soumya Shankar @shankarmya