Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the common man should be able to access it without discrimination and declared that the final decision on the controversial net neutrality issue will be taken by the telecom department and not the regulator.
A six-member panel set up by telecom department will submit its recommendations next month, following which a final view will be taken on net neutrality, the principle that guarantees consumers equal and non-discriminatory access to all data, apps and services on the internet.
“We feel that the internet is the creation of human mind. Internet should have linkages to the common man in a non-discriminatory manner,” Prasad told reporters at a hurriedly convened media briefing after the blogosphere was flooded by emails and petitions demanding the protection of net neutrality. “It (internet) belongs to entire humanity and not to a few,” the minister tweeted a while later.
An online campaign started over the weekend in response to Trai’s consultation paper on regulating OTT (over-the-top) services such as WhatsApp and Skype has resulted in 1.59 lakh netizens signing an online petition and over 1.5 lakh emails being sent to Trai in support of net neutrality.
Political leaders cutting across party lines too have weighed in. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh and DMK leader Stalin spoke out in favour of a free and open internet.
Prasad said the government’s views will be independent of what the Trai recommends. “We are doing so (coming out with a report) independent of Trai. This is happening for the first time because of the gravity of the matter,” the minister said, adding that the regulatory authority was an advisory body whose advice was not binding on the government.
In an interview with a TV channel, Trai chairman Rahul Khullar said the regulator’s intention was to start a debate and it will take a decision based on comments from all concerned.
Earlier this month, the regulator had floated a consultation paper on whether over-the-top services, popularly called apps, which are delivered over the internet by telecom operators and ISPs, should be licensed or regulated. The regulator has asked stakeholders to send in suggestions by April 24 while counter-arguments need to be submitted by May 8.
Trai will subsequently come out with its recommendations on the subject.
Online activists have criticised the Trai initiative and said it should not do anything that enables telcos and ISPs to block or restrict access to websites and apps. They argue that no new regulatory structure is required for internet services and apps, and any additional licensing and regulations will be detrimental to customers as well as firms developing online apps and services.
The online campaign, possibly the first of its kind over a major policy initiative, has been extremely successful. “We’re receiving on 15 email accounts and they are all choked. There’s an absolute torrent of emails going to Trai right now,” said a tweet from Twitter handle of neutrality-_in. A video explaining net neutrality made by All India Bakchod (AIB) went viral over the weekend.
‘Indians are net-literate’
“People of India are extremely net-literate,” said Antony Alex, chief executive of myLaw.net, an online education platform. “They have realized the damage any move to control the internet can cause. Internet is now so powerful only because it’s free. It will become irrelevant the moment ISPs/TSPs (Internet service providers/telecom service providers) start controlling what a common man can watch or access.”
The Trai consultation paper coincides with the recent plans of telcos such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications to offer some apps for free to their users. While telcos argue that they are not giving preferential treatment to any app or service, critics point out that the companies are paying telcos for providing apps free to customers.
This, in turn, puts app makers who don’t enter into tie-ups with telcos at a disadvantage as it discourages customers from accessing these apps, hence violating the principle of net neutrality.
Net neutrality has already found backing overseas. Earlier this year, the US adopted this principle, implying that service providers treat all data on the internet equally and not impose differential pricing or discriminate between users, content sites, platforms and apps.
Last April, EU lawmakers voted in favour of net neutrality and against a two-tiered internet, in what was the first stage of the entire process. The proposal needs to be ratified by the European council of ministers comprising representatives of all 28 EU countries. The EU is expected to finally decide on net neutrality this summer.