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≅  Internet power to the people

By : PRABIR PURKAYASTHA , Source : The Hindu 

The regulations issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)barring differential pricing of data based on content have created a global impact. A friend, who runs a major international software company, called it the most important victory for the people in the tech space in the last 20 years. India has joined a select few countries that have protected net neutrality and barred zero-rating services.

What makes this “victory” even more surprising was the complete asymmetry of the two sides involved. On one side was Facebook, a company whose market cap is greater than the GDPs of 144 countries, allied with a bunch of big telecom companies (telcos). They had already “won” easy victories for their platform in a number of countries, and felt India would be no exception. They had an ad campaign that estimates put at Rs.400 crore. On the other side was a motley group of free software and Internet activists, with unlikely allies such as comedy group AIB, a bunch of start-ups, and some political figures and formations.

The argument that Facebook was using appeared simple. Why should anybody deny the poor getting some access to the Internet — even if this was limited? Isn’t something better than nothing? Mark Zuckerberg not only wrote articles terming his opponents “Net Neutrality fundamentalists”, but also appeared in advertorials in the electronic media to push Free Basics. Some commentators wrote plugs for Facebook in the guise of opinion pieces, all more or less posing different variations of the broad theme that Zuckerberg’s heart beats for the Indian poor.

To beat back such an offensive, backed by the full power of Facebook’s media blitz, was no ordinary event. So why did Facebook’s campaign fail?

People’s campaign prevails

First is, of course, the energy and the creativity of the groups fighting Free Basics. They not only ran an innovative and creative campaign, but were also able to bring tech activists on to the streets. What surprised even them was the response of the people.

I am convinced that Facebook and their ad agencies completely underestimated the Indian public. Even if all of them do not use the Internet, they understand the difference between having access to the full Internet, with nearly a billion websites, and the so-called Free Basics platform that provides Facebook and a few other sites. They are sophisticated enough to know that Free Basics would not offer them any of the things they really want to access. No search, no email, no access to various services; no pictures or video clips for entertainment either. No access to the rich diversity of views and material on the Internet. Only a sterile walled garden where, at best, you can see what your friends are doing.


GJ Free Basics Special selective read for the members

A level playing field

What is the flip side of such a platform? Other people who want to have the full Internet could still access it, so why is Facebook’s Free Basics harmful?

TRAI has correctly pointed out that the tariff principle at play is whether we can have differential pricing of data based on the content we see. If we accept this principle, what then prevents telcos from charging various websites and Internet services for accessing their subscribers? Accepting that one form of price discrimination is okay opens the door to all other forms of discrimination as well.

This is where Net Neutrality comes in. The most important characteristic of the Internet is whether it is the richest corporation in the world or an individual writing a blog, both are treated identically on the Internet. If the blogger had to negotiate with the Internet service providers (ISPs) — in today’s world the telcos — to reach the telco subscribers, she would have to negotiate with thousands of such ISPs. Telcos would then be the gatekeepers of the Internet. Only the biggest corporations could then survive on the Net. This is how the cable TV model works; for their channels to be carried, the TV channels have to negotiate with all the platforms such as Dish TV, Tata Sky, etc. If we accept that telcos can act as gatekeepers, we would then lose what has given the Internet its unique power, the ability for us not only to be consumers but also creators of content.

In its nascent phase, the big telco monopolies tried to levy a “tax” on all Internet content providers. The Internet companies were then the new kids on the block. They and the Internet user community fought back such attempts. This was the first net neutrality war, and it established the principle of non-discrimination on the Internet between different types of content or sites.

The scenario has changed dramatically today. We have the emergence of powerful Internet monopolies that are much bigger than the telcos. Not surprisingly, these companies now see the virtues of monopoly. They would like to combine with telcos to create monopolies for their platforms, ensuring that they control the future of the Internet and freeze their competition out.

Today, we have nearly a billion websites on the Internet and 3.5 billion users. This means that nearly one out of three users is both a content provider as well as content consumer. What the Internet monopolies want is that we should be passive consumers of their content, or at best generate captive content only for their platforms. This is why they have joined hands with telcos to offer various forms of zero-rating services.

Future-proofing policies

The two most common forms of zero rating used by telcos are (a) no data charges for a select set of sites, e.g. Facebook’s Free Basics, and (b) a few content providers such as Netflix not being subjected to data caps by telcos. The TRAI order bars both these forms.

The other issue that TRAI dealt with is whether regulatory policies should be crafted to prevent harm (ex ante) or be applied only after harm has been established. The argument of the telcos has been, “prove there has been harm, otherwise we should be allowed to do as we please”. TRAI has again correctly pointed out that not crafting the right policies for the Internet would distort the basic character of the Internet itself. It would then help the well heeled, who would be able to take advantage of a lack of policy. The TRAI order also points out that without the right policies, each tariff proposal would have to be analysed on a case-by-case basis, imposing high regulatory overheads.

The last issue we need to examine is how a powerful monopoly can bend policy by virtue of its control over its users. Facebook not only launched a media blitz but also ran a completely misleading campaign on Free Basics to its 130 million Indian subscribers. Through its various pop-ups and user interface, it pressured its users to send TRAI a boilerplate statement of support for Free Basics. It even painted this as providing basic Internet to the poor, without informing its users that Facebook was the sole arbiter of what constitutes a basic Internet.

The question is, can a platform monopoly — of the type Facebook, Google are — use this monopoly to run a campaign on a country’s policy? Facebook is a foreign entity and has argued before Indian courts that it is not accountable to Indian laws. Should such entities have such power over our peoples’ lives?

A media company is supposed to differentiate between advertisements and news. Facebook did not identify its plug for its Free Basics platform on Facebook as opinion but presented it as truth. How should online media conduct itself in the future on such issues?

TRAI had rebuked Facebook on its attempt to convert TRAI’s consultation on differential pricing to a numbers game. TRAI wanted clear answers to the questions they had posed, not boilerplate emails saying how people loved Free Basics. But it still leaves unanswered the question of what are the rights and duties of such platform monopolies towards their users. With Google and Facebook emerging bigger than many nation states, this is the key question for the Internet in the future.

(Prabir Purkayastha is Chairperson, Knowledge Commons, and Vice-President, Free Software Movement of India.)


Trai played with a straight bat, stood up for net neutrality- Hindustan Times

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai’s) ruling against differential pricing of Internet services — which in the public eye has become a snub for Facebook’s Free Basics programme — is a measured response to a controversial issue. The regulator’s dilemma lies in encouraging steps to provide internet access for all while ensuring a level playing field for internet companies.

It has now put in place a regime in which telecom operators would have to stay clear of partnerships with content providers that involve implicit or subsidised pricing that go against the principle of Net Neutrality, which is all about keeping services over the Internet separate from the provision of data access. The intent is to make service providers such as e-commerce companies, news organisations and social networks compete with each other, while data service providers will compete amongst themselves.

The regulator has taken a pragmatic view by giving a six-month elbow room for operators to fall in line with the new rules while prescribing a penalty for violators. The commendable part is the elaborate explanation that Trai has given for making a difficult choice after a noisy debate in which Facebook and its telecom service partners were pitted against activists backed by content-linked service providers.

Facebook’s offer of a stripped-down version of the Internet free to masses seemed compelling when viewed as an anti-poverty programme of the digital age. But the fact that Facebook is a commercial player with access to user data that might translate it into advertising dollars was an inhibitor. Trai says “regulatory oversight is required so that the tariff framework follows the broad regulatory principles of non-discrimination, transparency, non-predatory, non-ambiguous, not anti-competitive and not misleading”.

The internet is a public good built on the edifice of technical standards and spectrum access in which non-profit bodies, academic institutions and governments have provided vital assets. In that sense, private telecom service providers have a quasi-public role that is often overlooked. In keeping options open to review its ruling in two years or earlier, Trai acknowledges the need for fluidity in the situation to achieve conflicting objectives. It notes that differential tariff schemes can have both positive and negative impact as small content providers may not be able to participate in such schemes.

However, Trai does not prohibit free data services that offer unqualified access to the entire Internet. What perhaps is required is transparency in schemes that aim to bridge the digital divide and increase Internet penetration. (Updated: February 10, 2016)


One web for all: Trai fosters innovation and democracy by affirming net neutrality as a guiding principle – Times of India

Telecom regulator Trai has struck a blow for an open and non-discriminatory internet, after 11 months of public consultation and intense wrangling. Facebook, in partnership with Reliance, was accused of violating net neutrality – the principle that an internet service provider will not privilege one stream of content over another. While Facebook flooded the media with ads for its Free Basics plan, and got its own users to lobby the government with notification buttons on the social network, there was a remarkable counter-mobilisation by net neutrality activists under the Save the Internet campaign.

The Free Basics model, which offered the poor free access to a set of pre-approved apps including Facebook itself, ran into flak for corroding competition and distorting consumer choice. Facebook presented its “internet-Lite” as a free choice to the consumer, who could also pay for access to the full web if she preferred. But that is a disingenuous argument, given existing inability to make an informed choice. India, with its barely-tapped population, is already Facebook’s second largest market. But while a digital company’s interests can mesh with the government’s responsibility to widen internet access, it should not distort the end-user’s experience or create barriers for new entrants.

The open, generative nature of the internet – the fact that a startup has the same claim on your attention as a world-straddling corporation, or that a small civic group can reach you as effectively as a powerful government – makes it an exceptional platform for innovation and democracy. The Trai order appreciates this principle of a level playing field. The “unique architecture of the internet” is now an explicitly stated guiding principle for regulation, which will deter future attempts to create tiered models of content. Telecom operators will not be allowed to “shape the user’s experience”, the Trai ruling has stressed.

That said, universal digital access is a burning public obligation. Having refused Facebook’s offer, the government should now focus on providing subsidised access to those who can’t afford it in an application-agnostic manner, through the universal service obligation fund or even other business models, like capped free content, or data in exchange for ads or handsets, which do not interfere with net neutrality. The Trai order has rightly drawn attention to the need to expand public access. (Updated: February 10, 2016)

India Rejects Facebook’s ‘Free’ Internet- The Daily Beast

Facebook has been trying to sell its idea of free Internet to India for a year. On Monday, India turned it down—but Mark Zuckerberg is not taking no for an answer.

In a press release Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced that it has prohibited a practice known as zero-rating, or the offering of select applications or Internet services at no cost. First under the name Internet.org, then as Free Basicsfrom Internet.org, Facebook has been offering a zero-rated service in developing portions of India through smartphone carriers since last February.

But Facebook’s presence in the country has been greeted with significant pushback fromdigital rights groups and Indian net neutrality advocates from the start.

Advocates of net neutrality say that, by selecting the applications and services made available, zero-rated initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics give private companies too much control over which parts of the Internet people see and use, and which they don’t.

Free Basics, for example, is not really “free Internet”; it includes low-data versions of Facebook and other services from independent developers that must be submitted to Facebook for review. And a company like Facebook, critics argue, may have a vested interest in introducing the developing world to the Internet through its own front door.

The Silicon Valley social media giant, on the other hand, has long tried to position the service as a philanthropic one. Last September, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg teamed up with Bono for a New York Times op-ed, calling for the tech world to “do far more for those most marginalized, those trapped in poverty, and those beyond or on the edge of the network.” Prominently mentioned, of course, was Facebook’s push for “global connectivity” under Internet.org.

But making Free Basics seem charitable has been a hard sell for Facebook. In May of last year, startup investor Mahesh Murthy bluntly called Facebook’s free Internet initiative “evil,” saying that it is “just about acquiring folks from the bottom of the pyramid as Facebook users.”

In an open letter, digital rights groups claimed that Facebook was “building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.” To naysayers, the motivation seemed clear: Facebook was in the market for, well, a new market—and India, with its billion-plus people, was top on the list.

Facebook, however, has long claimed that Internet.org and Free Basics are not motivated by money, writing in a press release last year, “If revenue were the goal, Facebook would have focused resources on markets where online advertising is already thriving.”

Unconvinced, Indian Internet users have protested Internet.org and Free Basics for months, until TRAI temporarily blocked it last December.

Despite this resistance, Facebook has devoted considerable resources to its relationship with the Indian government, and to convincing the Indian public that Free Basics is indeed a social good. Over the past year, Mark Zuckerberg has added an Indian flag overlay to his profile picture, met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and published on op-ed in The Times of India. In that same time frame, Facebook has spent a sizable amount of money advertising Free Basics in India, even launching an online petitionasking its users to tell TRAI that they support the service.

It was enough to raise the question: If Free Basics was truly about helping the poor, why did it have to be sold so aggressively?

Now that TRAI has given Free Basics and other zero-rated services the boot, one might think that Facebook would take a step back, lest it appear too eager to court a country that has already turned its global initiative down. Not so.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company was “disappointed with the outcome,” adding that “we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

Zuckerberg also wrote a lengthy Facebook post on Monday saying that the company is “disappointed” but will continue to work on the problem of Internet connectivity in India.

“Connecting India is an important goal we won’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the Internet,” he wrote. “We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs, and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them.”

Prominent tech blogger Anil Dash was quick to comment on Zuck’s post, noting that his family comes from one of the poorest regions of India.

“At a broad level, it might be useful to really, really reckon with the history of western corporate powers enforcing their desires on a broad swath of the Indian population, especially India’s poorest,” he suggested. “There are things that India, Indians (and those of us in the diaspora) place a very high value on, for historical reasons, that should be obvious with some thought. A colonialist ‘Trust us, it’s for your own benefit’ pitch is a hard sell with good reason.”

And in response to Zuckerberg’s assertive pledge to connect India, Dash asked the billionaire one question: “What about pausing the [Free Basics] effort and spending some time on a real effort to listen to Indian voices about what would help them have connectivity on their own terms, in a way they find acceptable?” (Updated: February 9, 2016)

Trai’s welcome move: Net neutrality is assured – The Economic Times

The Indian debate on net neutrality is over, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will have to drop Free Basics from his wishlist. On Monday, telecom regulator Trai said all internet service providers — telecom companies, social media platforms like Facebook and other data service operators — must adopt uniform pricing. Trai clearly says, “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.” It says, with reason, that it is better to spell this out unambiguously than deal with individual violations as and when they crop up. Violators will be fined, at the rate of Rs 50,000 per day, if they resort to differential pricing. During emergencies, service providers can drop rates sharply. This newspaper has always supported net neutrality, whose principle of allowing all users access to the net at the same cost, without extraordinary pricing kinks that could distort markets, has been upheld by Trai.


While paying lip service to the idea of net neutrality, Zuckerberg tried to subvert it by offering a bouquet of unadorned internet services free to everybody who used Facebook or other products owned by his company. He argued that getting some services free was better than getting nothing at all for the poor. Economics is replete with examples of deeppocket companies offering discounts and freebies to capture market share and bring prices back up when rivals have been eliminated by this ‘predatory pricing’. Trai’s move is welcome. Net neutrality is assured.

Now, policy must address issues unresolved more than 20 years after India took baby steps towards its mobile revolution. The government has to rationalise spectrum policy, and bunch defence and non-commercial users into consolidated chunks of the radio spectrum. This will free up consolidated bands for commercial users and lead to more efficient spectrum allocation. V-Sats or Google’s experimental Loon technology, which aims to use high-altitude balloons to host transponders, can be used to spread data services into the most remote corners of India, while fibres are laid on the ground. (Updated: February 9, 2016)

Net positive- Business Line

TRAI is right in disallowing discriminatory tariffs for internet access. Wrong in allowing ‘walled gardens’

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has taken a bold decision by disallowing differential pricing for data services. By asking telecom operators to stop offering plans that allow access to a limited number of websites — either free or at lower cost than what a user pays for accessing the internet in general — the regulator has upheld the basic principles of network neutrality, which is to enable fair, equal and non-discriminatory access to all. Internet penetration in India is still at a nascent stage and the rules of the game needed to be set at an early stage; in doing so, the foundation has been laid for robust broadband growth. This is also in line with the Centre’s push to promote entrepreneurs and startups in the digital world as they will now be assured of a level playing field in accessing customers via the internet, without the fear of telecom operators acting as gatekeepers. While the arguments in favour of differential pricing cannot be dismissed out of hand, in a country where the majority is not connected to the internet, this would have given too much power to telecom operators to shape user experience. Besides, it would have also created significant entry barriers for innovative smaller companies, which could have been stifled by stronger players with deeper pockets.

On balance, the contention that differential pricing would make overall internet access more affordable and hasten online access fails against the larger principle of net neutrality — equal access for all. Moreover, the projected altruism of the former approach is undermined by the fact that what its loudest proponents really want is a slice of the internet economy. If the real object was to wean people to the internet, then a scheme offering free trial packs for a limited period would do the trick — a proposal TRAI has backed.

However, it is baffling why the regulator has allowed differential tariffs to be offered for data transmitted over so-called ‘closed electronic communications networks’. Although such a communications network does not allow data to be received or transmitted over the internet, telecom operators may use this exemption to push their versions of a ‘walled garden’ network. TRAI has left the door open for telecom operators to interpret the exemption in a way that suits them and create a parallel network to offer applications and services at lower tariffs. If the regulator truly wants to ensure network neutrality, it should clearly explain why this provision has been incorporated and the conditions that would apply to such closed networks. There should be no room for ambiguity, failing which it should withdraw this permission. Otherwise, it could be a case of so near yet so far. (Updated: February 9, 2016)

Facebook’s controversial Free Basics service blocked in India over net neutrality concerns- Independent

Free Basics, Facebook’s service which offers limited internet service for free to poorer people in developing countries, has been blocked in India, over concerns that it could violate the principles of net neutrality.

The service, which offers users free access to certain online messaging, job-finding, weather forecasting and news services, was temporarily closed by regulators in India at the end of 2015.

Some have praised the humanitarian goals of the service, but many people in India have opposed it, claiming that by controlling and dictating what internet services users can access, Facebook is going against net neutrality – the idea that internet service providers should treat all users and data the same.

In giving priority to major websites and services, some also worried that Free Basics could lock smaller companies out of the market, stifling innovation in India.

Now, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has ruled in favour of the critics, saying in a statement: “No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.” As a result, Free Basics has now been blocked.

The TRAI’s ruling is the culmination of a long, high-profile battle between Facebook and Indian net neutrality advocates over the merits of the service. The two sides have been publicly trading blows for a long time, with Facebook defending Free Basics in a prominent advertising campaign. (Updated: February 8, 2016)