Google joined hands with Facebook to try and prevent the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which represents some of the largest Internet companies in India, from taking a stand that counters Zero Rating. According to emails exchanged between IAMAI’s Government Relations committee members, of which MediaNama has copies, Vineeta Dixit, a member of Google’s Public Policy and and Government Relations team, strongly pushed for the removal of any mention of Zero Rating from the IAMAI’s submission, as a response to the Department of Telecom’s report on Net Neutrality. Please note that Google hasn’t responded to our queries, despite multiple reminders.
The DoT committee report had singled out Facebook’s Internet.org as a potential gatekeeper for Internet access, and one that can lead to principles of non-discriminatory access being compromised, if “such market leaders are able to dictate the path to specific content”. “The committee therefore is of the firm opinion that content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value even if it is for an ostensible public purpose,” the report said, adding that “Collaborations between TSPs and content providers that enable such gatekeeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged.”
On Google and Net Neutrality in India
It’s worth noting that Google has done zero rated deals in India, notably with Airtel (the proponent of zero rated Airtel Zero service):
– for Free Zone (free Gmail, Google Search, Google+)
– 200 MB free data for only Google Play apps, and no data charges for Over-the-air updates on Android One handsets.
The Economic Times had recently reported that Google was planning to roll out its own Zero Rated service in India, but put plans on hold after the Net Neutrality protests, especially those against Airtel Zero.
Dixit’s email to the IAMAI government relations committee, while reasoning that there is no consensus on Zero Rating, asked for its removal from the submission, saying: “We would like to register strong protest against this formulation and would request you to remove this (Zero Rating) from the submission.” Another email in that list indicates that only Facebook in the IAMAI has taken a stand supporting Zero Rating, and, funnily enough, STAR has taken positions both supporting and being non-committal on Zero Rating. Note that STAR had written to the TRAI saying that instead of telcos being paid for allowing Internet content (via Zero Rating), it should be telecom operators that pay content providers. In addition, STAR had lobbied the TRAI to allow:
Telcos, ISPs & OTT providers may enter into partnerships that adhere to this approach ie– fair, reasonable andwith transparency; so long as such arrangements result in tangible benefits to consumers and do not result in any ‘double dipping’;
That suggests that STAR India is fine with being asked to pay telecom operators so that consumers get their services for free, which is type of Zero Rating.
It’s also worth noting that Google had joined the telecom lobby COAI last year, a few months after Facebook did. The COAI has pushed aggressively for allowing both Zero Rating, and the licensing or regulation of messaging and Internet Telephony apps in the country.
Google, which often takes part in regulatory consultations in India, has not submitted any comments to the TRAI, and opted out of deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT looking into Net Neutrality, despite a specific invite from the committee. It has avoided taking a public stand, but it does appear now that the company is lobbying via the IAMAI, and was trying to ensure, behind the scenes, that the IAMAI does not oppose Zero Rating, even though multiple members wanted to take a strong stance on the issue. Multiple members of the government relations committee have also told MediaNama that on committee conference calls, Google supported Facebook’s drafts.
However, following strident opposition from other government relations committee members, Google did offer its own version of a stand that the IAMAI might take on Zero Rating, which did not directly oppose Zero Rating, and only opposed the DoT committee’s framework set up to scrutinize Zero Rating.
While Google has also maintained silence on Net Neutrality in the US, and there are reports that allege that it still supports Net Neutrality, we’re not sure if it has a consistent position: a different one for the US, and a different one for India.
Google’s silence and its attempt to remove criticism of Net-Neutrality-violating Zero Rating from the IAMAI submission suggests that its position in India has changed from 2010, when it told the TRAI that it should be conscious of “the ways in which broadband providers’ practices can threaten the fundamental openness of the Internet. Consideration should be given to promoting a regulatory environment that protects user choice, competition and innovation on the Internet. Google submits that in designing the regulatory environment for the National Broadband Plan, TRAI should consider the ways in which broadband providers’ practices can threaten this openness.” At the time, it had emphasised that it believes that “no matter what choice TRAI ultimately makes with respect to the forms of technology or the structure of the agency to implement the National Broadband Plan, it must explicitly put in place safeguards to protect network neutrality in the regulatory framework for the project.”
The attempt at changing the IAMAI’s stand
In its counter comments to the TRAI, the IAMAI had taken a strong stand against Zero Rating, saying that the industry body wants “No discrimination based on cost of access”. However, a draft submission to the DoT (dated 9th August, 2015), of which MediaNama has a copy, takes the exact opposite stand, supporting Zero Rating, with statements such as:
– “Reducing data rates for particular applications, such as through flat rating or zero rating agreements, can help increase access to information.”
– “While data on the actual impact of these plans is limited, early data suggests that these programs can be an ‘on ramp’ to full Internet access”
– “people whose first data use is a free, zero-rated offering are more likely to buy a data plan for full Internet access.
– “analysis of these arrangements should not presume that there is consumer harm due to content providers acting as gatekeepers.”
What’s particularly noteworthy here is the usage of the phrase “on ramp” in the document. It’s a phase that has been typically associated with Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, when he is promoting Internet.org (see this and this), and Facebook representatives use it while suggesting that Internet.org isn’t playing gatekeeper. The position articulated above by the IAMAI appears to be remarkably similar to Facebook’s position, and a marked shift from its “No discrimination based on cost of access” stance. Following opposition from most of the committee members, the draft on Zero Rating appears to have changed (MediaNama has copies of emails), but Facebook appears to be trying to make the opposition to Zero Rating focused specifically on telecom operator plans.
It’s likely that Facebook has disproportionate say in deciding these matters: Sources have told us that Facebook now chairs the government relations committee at the IAMAI, from April this year to April next year. The IAMAI hasn’t updated its page with the constitution of the new government relations committee, but it did have time to conduct an event supporting Internet.org: an “Internet.org Developer Garage” in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. Please note that neither the IAMAI nor Facebook have responded to detailed questions sent to them, despite multiple reminders.
Regarding the stand on counter comments to the TRAI, that was a shift in the IAMAI’s position too: in an initial draft which was discussed at an open house with the government relations committee in April, the IAMAI had taken a strong position against Zero Rating, which was agreed upon. By the time the response was submitted to the TRAI, it had removed price discrimination from its submission. Only in the counter comments, after highlighted the change in stance.
The decisions made by the IAMAI’s government relations committee are seen as representative of all Internet companies in India, given that the IAMAI is the oldest Internet industry body in the country. However, it appears that Google and Facebook have disproportionate influence at the IAMAI.
In contrast, another industry association, NASSCOM, which doesn’t just have Internet companies as members, and runs the 10,000 Startups program, has taken a strong stand in favor of Net Neutrality.
Corrigendum: An earlier version of this report had incorrectly mentioned as STAR India has changed their position on Net Neutrality. The report has been updated to reflect the actual position. The error is regretted. Out thanks for the STAR execs for pointing out the error.
– MediaNama has taken a strong position in favor of Net Neutrality and against Zero Rating at TRAI, DoT and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, where we have submitted our view point, and/or deposed.
– I’m a volunteer with the Savetheinternet.in campaign for Net Neutrality and Internet Freedom in India.