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Exclusive: Indian government rethinks Net Neutrality committee, cites COVID-19 austerity

Last year, India’s telecom regulator had made several recommendations to the government about handling complaints concerning Net Neutrality and framing guidelines for ISPs.

The Indian government appears to no longer have the appetite to create a multi-stakeholder body to enforce Net Neutrality. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on June 25 wrote a memo to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) expressing discomfort at a September 2020 recommendation to “establish a multi-stakeholder body (MSB) to ensure that Internet Access Providers adhere to the provisions of net neutrality in their license.”

Net Neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet should be treated equally, without selective blocking, paid prioritisation (for handpicked apps or websites), or discriminatory pricing (which includes practices like zero rating). Strict Net Neutrality standards were codified into India’s Unified License, basically becoming law, in July 2018.

The DoT complained that this recommendation — a large multi-stakeholder body with all ISPs [Internet Service Providers] and telecom providers, as well as civil society and researcher participation — would be complex to run and cost the government too much money. “In view of austerity measures being undertaken by the Government due to COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to prevent avoidable expenditure,” the DoT said in its letter to the TRAI secretary.

The government also complained that TRAI did not prescribe any Traffic Management Practices (TMPs). TMPs are techniques that ISPs use to manage traffic and can manifest in several ways, including those that violate Net Neutrality. TRAI had recommended that the DoT “define the process” for creating a repository of TMPs, a process it suggested be done with the assistance of the multi-stakeholder body. The DoT seems to be disinclined to that idea, and instead seems to want a prescribed list of TMPs that it can adjudicate on. In 2018, the DoT had asked for TRAI to “recommend necessary [TMPs]” for the government’s consideration. (see Annexure I, page 49)

Text of back reference by DoT to TRAI

What follows is the text of the back reference sent by the DoT to the telecom regulator.

Digital Communications Commission (DCC), DoT has deliberated on the above recommendations and made following observations:

A. About Traffic Management Practices (TMPs)

i. TRAI has not prescribed any TMPs.

B. About establishing a Multi-Stakeholder Body

i. Considering wide diversity in technical and financial capabilities of more than 1500 ISP licensees, compulsory membership of all TSPs and ISPs to the multi-stakeholder body may not be feasible.
ii. The proposed MSB is expected to be a large body, which may be practically difficult to implement, coordinate and manage.
iii. Creation of new bodies for specific aspect of telecom domain may not be in the interest of overall synergy required for telecom regulation.
iv. The proposed multi-stakeholder body will require funding from DoT as envisaged in TRAI recommendations. In view of austerity measures being undertaken by the Government due to COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to prevent avoidable expenditure.

What TRAI recommended

TRAI had recommended last September that:

  • multistakeholder body be created by DoT with membership by ISPs, TSPs, researchers, civil society, etc. to have an advisory role in the enforcement of Net Neutrality.
  • This body should investigate Net Neutrality complaints from the public, its own members, and those referred to it by the government.
  • repository of Traffic Management Practices should be created, and this repository would be leveraged to create guidelines for TMPs by the MSB.
  • ISPs should disclose TMPs to the regulator. After a while, only approved TMPs can be used, and when these are applied to user traffic, they should be notified.

India has made two major strides in Net Neutrality: one is banning zero-rating, a practice that let telcos price certain apps and sites separately from the overall internet; and the second is baking Net Neutrality principles into telecom operators’ license.

MediaNama Coverage of the TMP consultations

You can read our coverage on the consultative process for creating an MSB and determining TMPs for Net Neutrality enforcement here:

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