How Much Indians Get to Use the Internet vs. How Much of the Internet We Get to Use

In February 2016, the Indian telecom regulator banned Internet service providers from charging differential rates for data based on the content being accessed — a practice termed ‘zero rating’. The law made it clear that any agreement, by any name, that had the effect of allowing service providers to charge users differently was prohibited.

In a sense, India issued a verdict on the hard case of the net neutrality debate first. It’s a hard case because in the U.S. and Europe, where net neutrality was first seriously debated, the question of zero rating was the outlier — to be treated on case-by-case basis rather than with bright-line rules address blocking or throttling. In these countries, the central concern was that access providers would create ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lanes on the Internet, rather than differentiating service between expensive and free. In fact, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has yet to formulate a position on these aspects of net neutrality.

Zero rating took center stage in India in 2015, when regulators were faced with the live case of a Facebook pilot called “Free Basics.” Facebook, partnering with select telecom operators, was offering a slice of the Internet — a curation of applications, including its own — to users for free. With 90% of the country’s middle- to low-income population yet to come online, the ability of service providers to partner with content companies to make some content cheaper to access was viewed by some as a great way to bring those Indians online.

Facebook asserted this was a means to bring internet to the unconnected, others objected that a few select applications can not be conflated with the internet — and shouldn’t for the millions coming online for the first time. The fear was that large content companies would prematurely capture the imagination of the millions of yet unconnected users, and this would have follow-on impacts on the evolution of Internet content in the country. Civil society ran a successful advocacy campaign against the practice that overwhelmed online conversations, grabbed headlines, and even saw public demonstration. For a technology policy issue in India, this was unusual, and in terms of scale, was the first of its kind.

As the policy debate was heating up, I was completing my dissertation research on a certain class of zero-rated plans. As part of my research at the Oxford Internet Institute, I asked what users thought of these data plans that offered a cheaper, more limited slice of the Internet. I surveyed Indian telecom operators, marketing executives, retailers and — of course — young and new users of the Internet on how they viewed certain zero rated plans. I learned that the next generation of adopters are young and curious about the ability of the Internet to materially benefit their lives. For them, the then-state of limited access curtailed this ability. In other words, for these users some access is better than none, and the trade-off they are willing to make is how much they use the Internet, not necessarily how much of the internet they get to use.

These findings were quoted by stakeholders on both sides of the debate. To me, this research suggested that access and net-neutrality need not be projected as distinct and in conflict. Instead, we should employ the age-old tech question: what does the user need? And also here, how can net neutrality rules get us there?

With the question of zero-rating decided, in January 2017, the TRAI started another consultation process on net neutrality, this time on the remaining issues of discriminatory speeds and access. There is no live case like Free Basics and relatively less public frenzy, but the consultation process has, unpredictably, seen greater consensus on the need for bright line rules against throttling and blocking (prioritization sees greater divergence).

In some senses, the normative question of what should guide the growth of the Internet in India has been settled in favour of non-discriminatory principles. What remains are the several nuanced questions of regulatory approach and implementation. Among these, those that have recurred through TRAI’s official consultation process are the prickly issues of congestion caused by video streaming traffic — and how, if at all, a net neutrality rule will address this. In a related vein, how will terms like ‘specialised services’ — a common exception to net-neutrality rules globally — be treated? And finally, how can net neutrality violations be detected — what standards and tools could regulators deploy?

With Mozilla, I will continue advancing my work to promote robust net neutrality in India. I will continue to explore what the Indian experience of regulating net neutrality might teach the world with a focus on similarly placed post-colonial countries. In a related vein, I will take lessons from net neutrality research globally and apply them to the outstanding policy questions that Indian regulators will have to resolve.

Finally, while net neutrality implicates typical market concerns of competition and innovation, it also demonstrates how these issues impact political and cultural values like autonomy and freedom of speech. There is work to be done to locate this issue within constitutional law and theory — and I hope to contribute further to this in India.