The announcement is historic as the USA still struggles to retain net neutrality protections; its net neutrality rules died in June 2018, though ISPs have been reclassified as a Title I service, shifting them under the FTC's jurisdiction. In other words, providers are assuring consumers that they aren't throttling our access. Despite Obama administration’s strong advocacy for net neutrality rules in the US in 2015, US telecom regulator Ajit Pai later had announced rolling back of those rules, which treated internet service providers like public utilities.
Back in India, people of India cheered the decision, as ISPs now cannot perform actions involving blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.
The internet in India is finally free and equally accessible.
The TC has kept ‘Critical IoT services' and 'specialised services' exempt from the new rules. These include remote surgery or autonomous vehicles, which the authorities compared to laws allowing ambulances to ignore traffic rules.
Just after the telecom regulator TRAI had started calling for public comment on potential changes to internet regulations back in 2015, the social media giant Facebook introduced its Internet.org (later Free Basics) service in India, which the country banned in 2016 for providing zero-rating content that may have presented an advantage over local companies. TRAI’s recommendation on prohibition of zero rating content has now also been approved by the TC, which is so vital to preserve net neutrality.
Then, the leading telecom operator Airtel had also released a plan which would charge extra for internet calls and a platform called Airtel Zero, which would allow free usage of select apps. This is popularly known as zero-rating. Airtel was later forced to cancel both these plans.
These plans had awakened the iusers and they started campaigning for net neutrality.
In Feb. 2015, TRAI had restricted telcos from charging differential rates for data services in its Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016, thus effectively blocking such attempts by Facebook and Airtel. To monitor violations, TRAI has recommended the establishment of a collaborative mechanism in the form of a multi-stakeholder body which would be responsible for developing technical standards for monitoring and enforcement of the principles.
In 2015, the TRAI had published a paper on net neutrality, a 118-page-long document and it came with heavy words and concepts that many did not understand. Many experts and analysts had then thought that even the TRAI looked sympathetic to the telecom operators, as the paper said “strict network neutrality and no regulation - are inherently flawed. Banning all discrimination is over-inclusive”.
The net users lobbied heavily through social media, and created web portals like savetheinternet.in and netneutrality.in where public were asked to sign petitions, and in less than a week, 8 lakh emails were sent to India’s telecom regulator, demanding a free and fair internet. Also, many companies expressed their support for a free and fair internet, and opined that discrimination could crumple local Indian companies and startups just entering the market.
Timeline of Net Neutrality:
Since the recommendations have now been approved, let’s have a look at the TRAI’s major recommendations on net neutrality. TRAI, on 28 Nov. 2017, released its recommendations, and its Chairman RS Sharma then had said, “Nobody owns the internet. And, therefore, it is everybody’s property, and therefore, it should be open and accessible to everybody.”
TRAI said in TRAI's consultation paper on differential pricing for data servicesits recommendations, “The licensing terms should be amplified to provide explicit restrictions on any sort of discrimination in Internet access based on the content being accessed, the protocols being used or the user equipment being deployed.”
The key highlights of the recommendations are:
Anti Discrimination: The recommendations say that discriminatory treatment of content is prohibited. Internet access services should be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.
CDN: The regulator, in its recommendations, has kept content delivery networks (CDN) out of the regulation. CDNs enable telecom deliver content within their network without going through the public internet in order to create a content ecosystem to drive user traction.
“We believe the CDN (content delivery network) exemption is likely to benefit integrated operators. We expect RJIO and Airtel to sustain leading positions in this space. They could leverage CDN exemption and offer platform content at lower prices to drive traction within their subscriber base,” brokerage house Edelweiss said in a report.
Internet of Things (IoT): TRAI, though as a class of services, has not excluded IoT from the scope of the restriction on non-discriminatory treatment. However, critical IoT services, which may be identified by department of telecom as specialised services which could include telemedicine, B2B services will be automatically excluded.
Appointment of regulator: The regulator wants a watchdog along the lines of BARC India for enforcing Net Neutrality and proposed reasonable measures of traffic management, in line with TRAI’s guidelines.
Exe mptions: Global treaties, court orders, government order on blocking certain sites are exempt from these guidelines, as per TRAI recmmendations.
Recommendations on Transparency and disclosures: TRAI has also proposed to supplement its existing disclosure and transparency requirements by framing additional regulations in this regard.
Recommendations on monitoring and enforcement: TRAI recommends that for monitoring and enforcement, DoT may establish a multi-stakeholder body with framework for collaborative mechanism among the stakeholders. The multi-stakeholder body, not for profit, led by industry may comprise members representing different categories of TSPs and ISPs, large and small content providers, representatives from research and academia, civil society organisations and consumer representatives. Now as the recommendations have been accepted, TRAI will frame the terms, conditions and governance structure etc.
Clear message to service providers: The regulator also gave a clear message to service providers, as one of the recommendations reads, “The service providers should be restricted from entering into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory treatment based on content, sender or receiver, protocols or user equipment.”
The Authority recommended that the terms of various license agreements governing the provision of Internet services in India (UL, VNO license, UASL and CMTS) be amended in order to incorporate the principles of non-discriminatory treatment of content by Internet Access Services along with the appropriate exclusions and exceptions. This will also help in building uniformity in the terms governing the provision of Internet services by different categories of licensees.
Some of the other features: TRAI asked DoT to define the specialized services. The regulator allowed internet access service providers to take reasonable measures for traffic management, provided they're proportionate, transient and transparent. It recommended telcos to declare their traffic management practices as and when deployed, and their impact on users.
TRAI also allowed carriers or Internet access providers to use some traffic management practices (TMPs) on their networks to ensure quality of services, preserve security of networks, providing emergency services and for implementing a court order or government direction, as long as they are transparent and their impact on users is declared.
TRAI added: “The authority may, from time to time, frame appropriate regulations to specify further details regarding the scope and assessment of reasonable traffic management practices.
There were mixed reactions on these recommendations. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents many telecom operators, said that the recommendations were principally in agreement with the industry submissions regarding the narrow issue of Net neutrality. COAI was then disappointed that the authority did not adopt the industry recommendation to have a wider approach. “A committee to review and decide on network management violations is unnecessarily bureaucratic, and is not in keeping with light touch regulation or the ease of doing business.”
Telcos were upset that while they have to adhere to net neutrality guidelines, these would not apply to over-the-top (OTT) players such as WhatsApp. They also opposed the proposal to include Internet of Things (IoT), which is expected to be a big revenue generator in the years ahead under 5G technology, within the ambit of net neutrality
The Internet Association of India (IAMAI) called the recommendations “progressive and in line with the debates” in the industry and user groups. It said, “The debate of Net neutrality was about the freedom and choice of access for end users. Internet in India, unlike possibly in the U.S. or China, is going to be ‘free and open’ upholding the democratic principles of the country.
Nikhil Pahwa, cofounder, Internet Freedom Foundation, said: “Essentially, this differential access ruling affirms the principles of non-discrimination that were established by TRAI in the differential pricing ruling last February. This is a victory for Internet users and ensures they can create operate freely without fear of discrimination from TSPs (telecom service providers), who have been barred from blocking them or slowing them down, except under exceptional circumstances.”
“Any deviations and violations of the rules of net neutrality -- which come into effect almost immediately -- will be met with stiff penalties," telecom secretary Aruna Sundarajan said.
The net neutrality norms are world’s strongest, and it adds beauty to our democratic values and set examples before the world. Finally 500 million users in India will see the New Dawn.