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Sri Lanka’s internet is a sprawling violation of Net Neutrality

Sri Lanka’s telecom operators have been violating Net Neutrality, the principle that traffic on the internet should not be discriminated. Plans frequently offer access to social media services like Facebook and WhatsApp for free, while metering other internet traffic. The end result has been that customers have been left with low data allowances and are locked into tariff plans where streaming services and social media networks blessed by network operators get unrestricted access to consumers, while the rest of the internet is subject to low limits.

Social media-only packs are not new, but a review of some of Sri Lanka’s telecom plans shows that discriminatory data packs have left a deep imprint on how the country accesses the internet. For example, there’s Mobitel’s Non-Stop plan, which provides the WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Viber for up to 30GB, but limits other high speed usage at 2GB. Then there is Dialog fixed broadband’s Netflix-only plan, whose regulatory disclosure states clearly that it’s an add-on for 999 Sri Lankan Rupees a month that lets users browse Netflix for free. (In a statement, Netflix said, “We’ve long been supporters of strong net neutrality, including ensuring non-discriminatory zero-rating plans.”) And then there is Sri Lanka Telecom, which has a plan which provides unlimited data for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and its own service, SLT Film Hall.

A lot of the Net Neutrality violating plans tend to sit on top of existing plans as add-ons, letting telcos juice more money out of individual subscribers. During the pandemic, telcos took another step beyond just having different pricing for some services verus the rest of the internet; according to another tariff disclosure reviewed by MediaNama, Dialog advertised a “Work & Study from Home” plan, where customers would have 35–80GB of data to spend, but wouldn’t be able to use that data for things Dialog, in all its wisdom, determined was “not required for Work & study at home,” such as social media, entertainment streaming sites, torrenting, online gaming, and VPNs.

Essentially, Dialog stretched a lack of Net Neutrality regulation to a baffling conclusion, putting itself in a position where it dictates what is education or work related and what isn’t. (That many remote workers require VPNs is a whole other issue.)

It doesn’t end there. Amid the pandemic, operators also hawked plans that had different data limits for applications like Zoom and the Microsoft Office suite. Even Airtel Sri Lanka got in on the action, with plans that had free Zoom, “government mandated eLearning sites,” and Facebook.

As all these conditions prevail, in a market where two out of three wireless players are owned by the government in a practical duopoly, the result is that even for wired broadband, data rates are incredibly high, with a 2 terabyte high speed connection costing more than the equivalent of INR 11,000 (half the 2TB can only be used at night).

Contrast with India

On the other side of the Palk Strait, none of this behaviour is legal. Since 2016 in India, telecom operators have not been allowed to discriminate in data pricing. With Reliance Jio’s entry, this has meant that even as telcos consolidated into three major providers, all services across the board on the internet have been forced to compete on a more or less equal footing, regardless of whether they are owned by a telco or blessed by one.

Sri Lanka’s lax approach to regulating its telecom sector has led to this situation where not only are operators boosting entrenched monopolies of tech giants like Facebook, they are also redefining what the internet is. Sagarika Wickramasekera, a member of ISOC Sri Lanka’s board of advisors, told MediaNama hat non-transparent pricing and generally questionable behaviour was common among the country’s telcos, with the government and regulators unequipped to handle issues that stem out of this.

When Facebook was banned in the country a couple years ago, Wickramasekera said, she approached officials in power to challenge the ban and they showed a very low level of understanding about the internet.

In 2017, Sri Lanka’s then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, praised Net Neutrality in a speech in New Delhi, and even specifically pointed to India’s zero rating ban. However, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka did not move at all to examine the issue of Net Neutrality. Wickremesinghe’s party is no longer in power at the central level since 2019.

If Sri Lankan telecom operators were disallowed to do such discriminatory pricing, the end result would almost certainly be more data for customers to use, across both mobile and fixed broadband. Right now, telcos clearly have the capability to offer more data; however, they are more comfortable choosing where Sri Lankan customers use that data, instead of letting them choose on their own. The damage it is doing to the market, and to the internet in Sri Lanka in the process, though, are disproportionate to the corners they are cutting with their plans.

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