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RS Sharma has been appointed the new Chairman of the TRAI, and the Chairman has some fairly important processes to oversee now, not in the least, the one on Net Neutrality. The TRAI changed quite significantly under its last Chairman, Rahul Khullar, and I’m reminded of an open house consultation that MediaNama participated in.

On a fairly pleasant day in Bangalore in November 2011, I had a fairly unpleasant exchange at a TRAI open house session with certain executives from Vodafone India.

The TRAI had hosted its open house discussion on the issue of a regulation of mobile Value Added Services (VAS), a digital content and services ecosystem which includes ringtones, ringback tones, video and music streaming on the circuit switched (non-Internet) Mobile pipe. VAS, to this day, remains constrained and controlled by telecom operators, with a few companies dominating, and lacks the diversity of the Internet.

In 2008, not very long after MediaNama had started, I remember sitting at a similar TRAI open house consultation and hearing Netcore founder Rajesh Jain make a plea for standardization of Mobile VAS, because Airtel and Vodafone had blocked his MyToday SMS code. (read this and this)

His predicament had greatly influenced MediaNama’s position on VAS, and in our submission (link) to the TRAI in 2011, we went even further: we called for standardization (of revenue share relationships and payment terms between VAS companies and telecom operators) AND openness: opening up short code registration, so that each VAS company could register a short code in the same manner as anyone can register a Domain Name for a website, as well as guaranteed availability of service to consumers with a short code, so that VAS companies don’t have to go from operator to operator to negotiate terms.

Essentially, we took an ideal situation that is the Internet, and tried to bring mobile VAS as close to the Internet as possible.

The argument with the Vodafone India executive was about the fact that they claimed that they’re liable for every piece of content that goes through their pipe, and hence they need complete control over what their VAS “vendors” serve. Of course, this claim from Vodafone was and is factually incorrect because Section 79 of the IT Act (recently watered down by the Supreme Court of India), gave them a safe harbour as intermediaries. This claim was in response to our point that MediaNama started as an Internet business in two weeks, and could have done it even more quickly, because we didn’t need to negotiate with multiple telecom operators for permission to start. You can’t start a VAS business in two weeks, and we argued for giving that freedom to entrepreneurs, and pointed out that the VAS ecosystem is corrupt, and consumers get cheated, because of the inordinate power that individual VAS executives in telecom operators have.

As you may guess, we’re making the exact same plea for allowing the Internet in India to remain independent of telecom operators, when asking for Net Neutrality to be mandated by law.

To cut a long story short, the TRAI executives on stage, quietly watching proceedings, allowed for a fairly heated debate between the Vodafone executives and me. After the session, one of them walked over to me and said “Don’t worry about it. We’re on your side and completely agree with you, and we’re going to rule in best interest of the consumer. But when we’re on that stage, in an open house, we have to let everyone speak, and we can’t take sides”.

All that changed under the last Chairman. Rahul Khullar was the first TRAI Chairman that I saw shout down speakers at TRAI Open House Sessions (in both the Cable TV and Broadband growth consultations, from what I remember). More worryingly, he made false accusations, and openly took sides in the interest of telecom operators, even before the TRAI consultation on Net Neutrality had begun.

Mr. Sharma, if you’re reading this: the future of the Internet in India is in your hands. The Internet is not just a telecom operator service – it is independent of carriage, and it is the ecosystem that has created more value and access to knowledge for consumers than any other before it because of its openness, diversity and plurality. The Mobile VAS recommendation (which never got implemented), like the DoT committee report, took the middle path approach that regulators tend to take. In the Net Neutrality context, a middle path approach destroys the open-ness of the web, and adds restrictions and interference from the access pipe which harms Indian entrepreneurs and consumers. Don’t choose a middle path, and please act in consumer interest.

Oh, and another thing: Rajesh Jain who later started Niti Central, recently wrote, on Net Neutrality:

“If telcos start blocking apps, it is their prerogative.”

Don’t listen to him Mr. Sharma.