16/07/2015 5:05 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Net Neutrality Committee Leaves Tough Questions To Telecom Regulator

MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
Indian activists wear Guy Fawkes masks as they hold placards during a demonstration supporting 'net neutrality' in Bangalore on April 23, 2015. The activists urged the Indian government to pass legislation to ensure net neutraliy and prevent private service providers from gaining control over the internet. AFP PHOTO / Manjunath KIRAN (Photo credit should read Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI – A high-powered committee of the department of telecom, tasked with making recommendations on how India should treat net neutrality and regulate the internet, has passed the buck on contentious issues to the telecom regulator, while appearing to support net neutrality.

While on the surface, the report appears to unequivocally gun for the net to remain free, contentious topics such as whether it’s ok for telecom companies to allow certain websites to subsidize the cost of data, in a practice called zero rating, are left unaddressed.

In its report, the DoT committee chaired by A.K. Bhargava says that OTT communication services dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments.

There was also no case, it held, for prescribing regulatory oversight similar to conventional communication services and “...unreasonable traffic management, exploitative or anti-competitive in nature may not be permitted…” and “…improper (paid or otherwise) prioritization may not be permitted…”

The cause of net neutrality, which had remained an issue only nerds cared about, went mainstream after a small group of activists mounted a campaign and managed to rope in the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) to support the initiative. Their explainer video triggered enormous interest. The telecom regulator's consultative process was overwhelmed with a record number of public submissions.

This was shortly after Airtel, the country's largest telco by subscribers, announced a new initiative called Airtel Zero, which allowed websites and apps to underwrite the data cost for the user. Several netizens had protested saying this skewed the internet playing field in favour of those with deep pockets.

Ahead of a report by the telecom regulator, the Bhargava committee met over 45 organisations including Facebook, Google, Flipkart, Amazon, Paytm, Viber and Skype and telecom service providers as well as various public interest groups before submitting the report.

Even as the Bhargava report appears to vouch for net neutrality, it doesn’t mention Airtel Zero and only suggests that India’s telecom regulator take a call on whether such services violated basic net neutrality principles.

Nikhil Pahwa, editor of the digital media news website Medianama and one of the key pro-net neutrality campaigners, said that the report “goes against” net neutrality. “There is a mismatch between what is given as a summary and what the report actually recommends. For instance, domestic voice-over-internet services will be regulated just in the same way as those from telecoms. There is nothing against Airtel Zero,” he told HuffPost India.

Telecom operators such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea say that the exponential increase in the use of apps, especially Whatsapp and Skype, have been eating into their messaging revenues and now have the potential to hurt their voice revenues, which makes up over 80% of their business.

While the committee did mention that, that gave free access to certain websites was not a good thing, Facebook—that promotes—said they were all for net neutrality.

“…We firmly believe that we need to give people access to some sites in order to show them how they can use the broader internet to improve their lives…” said Kevin Martin, vice-president for mobile and global access policy at Facebook.

Read the net neutrality report here.

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