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What Ravi Shankar Prasad said about Net Neutrality in Rajya Sabha today

Ravi Shankar Prasad

This is a transcript of what was said in the Rajya Sabha

There was a discussion on Net Neutrality in the Rajya Sabha today, initiated by Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien. The Minister of Communication & Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad opened the discussion. This is what he had to say*:

Let me begin by making a commitment and assurance to this honorable house, and through the house to the people of India – this government is committed to the fundamental principles and concept of Net Neutrality. That is, keep the Internet available & accessible to all without discrimination. Within 100 days of assumption of office, the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the program of Digital India in the Mission Mode. It is designed to transform India into a digitally empowered society and economic. Digital India designed to break the divide between the ‘digital haves’ and the ‘digital have-nots’ and deliver connectivity to a billion citizens.

Digital India has basically three components – creation of digital infrastructure, digital connectivity, and digital empowerment. Digital connectivity has worked as a key driver of economy and social development in an increasingly knowledge intensive global scenario, in which India needs to play a leadership role. The program is designed to ensure that socio-economic scenario across India is transformed through accelerated, equitable, intrusive economic growth with special emphasis on providing affordable and quality access to broadband and Internet in rural and remote areas. We recognize that digital technology can afford means for millions of citizens to improve their economic lives. The world has changed so much in a short time. Countries across the world have moved from emphasis on physical connectivity to economic connectivity and lately to digital connectivity.

At the heart of digital connectivity is the public Internet, which has connected near and far, poor and rich alike. Internet is a new technology; its protocols were written not more than 40 years ago. The public Internet, the world wide web is only 23 years of age. In this short span of time it has come to occupy the center of the world. This has been made possible by the open, democratic structure of the public Internet – equal and accessible to all those who’re connect to the network. In India too the new age economic growth is being fueled by Internet. This government notes with confidence the growth of Internet India and wide platform it has offered for innovation, investment and creativity. In particular, the government compliments the initiative and entrepreneurship of the young in making India a powerhouse in IT & ITES. Studies by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations show that every 10% increase of Internet subscribers lead to 1.08% increase in our GDP. A similar study by the World Bank showed that for every 10% increase in broadband leads to 1.3% growth in GDP. While it has significant macro-economic contributions towards growth, productivity, employment, its empowering influence not only benefits large enterprise but also startups and entrepreneurs.

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The Internet has also emerged as the destination for public discourse..in a free democratic country the Internet has increasingly become an important platform of information dissemination and exchange of opposite views. Just as India values its constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression, it also values an Internet that is open. Such discussions on the Internet has led to empowerment of the common man. While reiterating this government’s commitment towards the core principles of net neutrality, we must recognize there are nuances to the issue that need deliberations to make it more meaningful. If this had not been so, the issue of Net Neutrality wouldn’t have become an issue of debate and litigation across the world – even in the western world, where the Internet occupies a much more central role in the nation’s economy and society. I’ve had occasion to study the debate on Net Neutrality in United States of America from where Internet originated. The Federal Communication Commission  declared a set of regulations for an open Internet in 2010. These regulations were challenged in courts by Internet Service providers and were later struck down in January 2014. Thereafter, FCC came out with a consultation paper in May 2014 that asked for response among other questions to a query as to whether that permits ISPs to charge content providers to provide greater bandwidth for the end users should be followed. FCC received over 3 millionmails is response to the consultation paper. the recent FCC rules, announced in February 2015, have been decided by the regulator by a slim 3:2 majority and have been promptly challenged in the US courts. As per media reports, the European Commission is meeting in early may to decide whether Over-The-Top players, who provide communication service over the Internet should be regulated.

The debate in India has also gathered over the suo moto consultation paper issued by TRAI, which asked for response to a number of questions concerning the regulation of OTT players. If the issue didn’t have nuances to it, why then would experts and regulators around the world would be breaking their heads over it? It’s therefore imperative that we not only preserve but also foster non-discriminatory Internet eco-system, wherein telecom service providers, content/application providers, industries, entrepreneurs and above all citizens of the country have a stake. Government stands for ensuring non discriminatory access to Internet for all the citizens of the country, and current debate on net neutrality should be seen from this perspective, while resolving the issue harmoniously and consistent with constitutional structure.

What is Net Neutrality? Professor Tim Wu, who coined the term Net neutrality, has stated that network neutrality is best defined as a network that is useful. The idea is that a useful public information network must treat all sites and content equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support very type of application. Net Neutrality thus refers to non-discrimination of data packets by intermediate networks of Internet on the basis of content, application, service, device, sender or recipient addresses. It generally places the requirement on telecom service providers to treat all Internet traffic on equal basis. Net Neutrality has many dimensions – it might be economic, regulatory and public policy aspects. Government agrees with the viewpoint that blocking and deliberate slowing down or speeding up of lawful Internet content should not be allowed and customers should have unrestricted acess to all lawful content on Internet. There would be instances such as traffic management, national security, integrity of the network, investment in infrastructure, etc where the implication of Net Neutrality would need regulation. This is what governments and regulators all over the world are grappling with. I’m informed that very few countries have opted for specific legislation for enforcement of Net Neutrality provisions. A recently released report 2014 Web Index by Web Foundation has found in a study across 86 countries that 74% of the countries lack clear & effective Net Neutrality rules or show evidence of price discrimination. On the basis of measures undertaken to enforce Net Neutrality it could be divided into three categories – 1) Countries with no specific measures undertaken an arresting mechanism is often considered sufficient to address the issue. For example, Australia, Republic of Korea and New Zealand. 2) Country with lighthanded measures such as transparency, lowering switching barriers, known quality of services undertaken. For example, European Commission, Japan, United Kingdom, etc. 3) Countries with specific measures to enforce no blocking, no discrimination in treatment of traffic, but both these measures are not absolute but subject to reasonable network management exemptions. For example, Brazil, Chile, Netherlands, USA, etc.

As for TRAI, TRAI makes various recommendations to the government on regulating various aspects of telecom sector, for a transparent and public resolution. TRAI had issued a suo moto consultation paper for deciding a regulatory framework for OTT services on 27/3/2015. While TRAI has the power to regulate traffic and quality of service, its regulations are subject to overall public policy of the government. On other issues TRAI can make recommendations and final legislation lies with the government. Even on tariff and quality of service regulations these have to be consistent with public policy, and the government has sufficient power under the TRAI Act to invoke its national policy objectives to overturn TRAI. The government has also separately constituted a committee with the mandate to recommend overall policy and typical responses for Net Neutrality. The committee has already held stakeholder consultations with OTT players, telecom service providers, internet service providers, civil society members, consumer groups, multi-stakeholder advisory group of the DeitY and various other associations and industry bodies. The committee is expected to submit its report by the end of this month. The government will then make a structured view of the way forward. I assure this house the key principles of Net Neutrality will be followed with adequate concern for national outlook.

I’ll conclude by saying two quick things. Internet is one of the finest creations of the human mind. It must belong to the entire mankind and not to few. The second point; I salute the young people of India for the manner in which they have brought India on the International stage through the spread of Internet. So, I’m happy to inform the house that in India we have 97.5 crore mobile phones and we have 30 crore Internet connections in India, and out aim is very soon in two years time we will have 50 crore or 500 million Internet connections in India and very soon we’ll have 100 crore or 1 billion mobile phones in India. This spread of information is truly extraordinary. And for Internet to be global must have a linkage with the local – in culture, in content and ideas. I want to assure the house that whatever be the outcome of the TRAI consultation paper, the final decision will be taken by the government.

*The speech has been paraphrased at places for brevity.

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