In 2015, when the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) under Obama administration voted strongly in favour of net neutrality, a vision of a free and fair internet was ushered in. Two years later, the regulations governing the businesses that connect consumers to the internet were repealed by FCC under the chairmanship of Ajit Pai, an Indian-American Donald Trump loyalist. The repeal of net neutrality was defended on the grounds that unregulated business will yield innovation and boost economic growth. Critics, on the other hand, argued that consumers will face difficulties in accessing content online and that start-ups will be severely discouraged by this move.
Maplight, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that reveals the influence of money in politics, informs and empowers voters, and advances reforms that promote a more responsive democracy has conducted a study that claims that some of the largest internet service providers, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association(NCTA), have spent $572 million on attempts to influence the FCC and other government agencies since 2008.
In a different part of the world, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India(TRAI) in India has upheld net neutrality and came out with a series of recommendations after a long process of consultation on the issue in November, last year. In 2016, TRAI had voted in favour of net neutrality by prohibiting broadband companies from charging differential rates for data services from consumers, effectively prohibiting Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero platform by Airtel.
TRAI’s recommendations that were released last year explicitly stated the principle of non-discriminatory treatment for providing services to consumers. The Authority issued guidelines directing Internet Access Service providers to not engage in any discriminatory treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds. The Authority believes that the internet serves as the basic infrastructure for the development of other markets and thus, the imposition of restrictions on access to it could hinder the growth and innovation in those markets. It would have a direct bearing on the health of the internet services as a whole. A major point of consideration was made by the Authority on the grounds of use of internet in such a manner that it advances the free speech rights of citizens, by ensuring plurality and diversity of views, opinions, and ideas. Another major highlight of TRAI’s recommendations was the establishment of a multi-stakeholder body with a framework for collaborative mechanism among the stakeholders.
The FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality in the US may not have a major effect on the businesses in India, but some entrepreneurs say there is a possibility that Indian start-ups will be at a disadvantage. As the US moves away from the prospect of free internet, Internet Service Providers(ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast can give preference to some sites and mobile applications in return for a fee, or to their business interests. Experts have speculated that internet firms with deep pockets such as Google and Facebook may benefit through a partnership with the ISPs, while start-ups, including Indian ones, may struggle. The repeal of net neutrality in the US is likely to push investments out of Silicon Valley. In the absence of a greater level of freedom for entrepreneurs, Indian start-ups will find it difficult to serve users in the US because of the numerous separate deals that they may have to strike with each ISP for preferential treatment.
The internet has become a worldwide platform for expression before an immediate audience with zero costs of distribution. If its character is highly differentiated because of lack of net neutrality, then it would have a grave consequence of dividing the global community and the diversity of choice offered by it. It would eventually, negatively affect our right to free expression of views and our ability to acquire knowledge. In the Indian context, net neutrality not only ensures that telecom operators do not unfairly discriminate between different websites and harm consumer choices but also upholds the constitutional freedom of speech and expression. Although net neutrality in India finds a strong backing of TRAI, one needs to acknowledge that such a regulatory exercise has an inherent complexity as can be seen by the repeated rounds of public consultation
Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad in his speech at the Global Conference on Cyber Space in New Delhi last year spoke on the non-negotiable character of the right to internet access. He said that the open internet facilitated by net neutrality enables marginalized and oppressed segments that are not adequately represented in mainstream media to tell their story.
The internet is a necessity for all as it provides a platform for advancing the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression and for exercising the right to information that can only be accessed in an environment that does not discriminate against us. As the battle for net neutrality continues in the US, in India, the government has a clear stand that advocates internet inclusion. This sustains the hope for a stronger enforcement of net neutrality in the direction of protecting our fundamental freedoms.
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