Imagine if you could launch a channel with your own shows: you could write your own scripts, get your friends to act, and show it to anyone in the world. Now imagine if everyone in the world could do the same. The only medium that allows this is the Internet. You don’t need an uplinking station or a downlinking license. You don’t need to pay a carriage fee to a cable operator for your channel to get an audience. You can start with just your phone and an Internet connection.
The true potential for the Internet in India lies in the idea of a billion creators: whether it is building an application, shooting a video series, or creating an ecommerce marketplace that sells handicrafts from your district. This is possible because the Internet isn’t just a marketplace, with just sellers and buyers: it is also a global public square and a playground; a space that unites the world, and allows us to create for each other. This is what Net Neutrality is about: that telecom operators should not classify creators separately from consumers, and charge consumers differently for accessing different creators. Every consumer is also a creator. Imagine if a user had to pay heavy data charges to access your video series or news documentaries, but nothing to access Reliance’s Jio Movies.
The TRAI recognized this in its Net Neutrality ruling in February this year, where it said that discriminatory tariffs “create entry barriers and non-level playing field for these players stifling innovation.” It also warned about the biggest problem of them all: that telecom operators may start promoting their own services. What if they made data for Whatsapp very expensive, and Jio Talk or Hike were free? What if Vodafone and Google made some apps free to download, but for some, you still had to pay data charges? How would that impact your choices, and would you create an app if the odds were so heavily stacked up against you? If telecom operators charged no data charges for their select 100-200 apps, users may never choose yours if you weren’t in the list. What would happen then to this “Make In India” dream of a having billion creators from India?
The idea of Net Neutrality is as simple as Vishal Misra, a professor at Columbia University, put it: that no telecom operator or ISP should give a competitive advantage to specific apps or services. The TRAI ruling in February had ratified this notion, but now telecom operators are trying to subvert this.
Firstly, in its regulation Trai prevented ISPs from charging differently for accessing different websites and apps on the internet. However, ISPs delivering exclusive content to their subscribers via an intranet can charge differently for different content, unless it is for the purpose of evading the regulation. Now Airtel wants to provide video services from its global partner on this network, for no or subsidised data charges. Doing this would put pressure on BigFlix, ErosNow, Gaana and Hotstar to also join Airtel’s Intranet, and thus give it gatekeeping powers.
Now imagine every telecom operator launching its own intranet, and each with 100 or 500 websites or apps each. What would those creators who don’t have the ability to partner with Airtel or Jio do? This would mean that the TRAI’s differential pricing regulation will become pointless.
Secondly, in a letter to the TRAI sent a few days ago, the telecom lobby group COAI has argued that there is no evidence of harm of such discriminatory pricing, of charging differently for different sites. This is incorrect: firstly, as Network18 founder Raghav Bahl explained in a column last year, regulations which allowed cable operators to do discriminatory pricing, made them gatekeepers, and their rent-seeking behavior was a major factors in his TV businesses becoming unsustainable.
In fact, much of the TV industry suffers because DTH and Cable operators extort carriage fees from creators, and only allow users to select channels from a menu of their choosing. This is why some channels are available on some cable operators, but not others. Do we want a menu of sites for the Internet?
Thirdly, there is precedence in Mobile VAS, which had content such as music downloads, and ringtones. Telecom operators played a gatekeeping role in Mobile VAS, and it became oligopolistic with only 10-15 key players. It suffered because of corruption of telecom officials, which led to fleecing of users. Do we want only 10-15 large websites to be allowed and different access charges for different websites, which could lead to fleecing? Fourth, most telecom operators have largely offered Facebook and Facebook owned Whatsapp as free data packs. We haven’t seen any Indian service try and compete with Facebook, and it’s not easy to establish harm when there’s a monopoly a market. However, this collusion has effectively placed Whatsapp competitors like Hike, WeChat and Line at a significant disadvantage.
Finally, why should we have to wait for harm for us to act against discrimination, instead of operating on the principle of equality?
Telecom operators are dangling the carrot of free access for their partner websites, but remain silent about their intent: of choosing what becomes free, and extorting money from creators. While it is in their shareholder interest to view the Internet only as a market, the TRAI must focus on public interest. Spectrum is a public resource licensed to telecom operators to enable access to connectivity and knowledge. Wikipedia exists because users create content on it. YouTube is full of documentaries and educational videos because anyone can upload them. Discrimination is not a perk of licensing, and telecom operators weren’t given the right to control how a billion people create and share.
Once again, it is for creators like us to counter the lobbying pressure from telecom operators with participation and appeals to the TRAI, to keep the Internet open and free.
*An edited version of the story first appeared on The Hindu Business Line here.