Centre for Internet & Society

India distinguished itself as a global leader on network neutrality on February 8, when regulators officially banned “differential pricing”, a process through which telecommunications service providers could or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services offered based on content.

The article was published by Global Voices on February 9, 2016

In short, this means that Internet access in India will remain an open field, where users should be guaranteed equal access to any website they want to visit, regardless of how they connect to the Internet.

In their ruling, Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) commented:

In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience.

The decision of the Indian government has been welcomed largely in the country and outside. In support of the move, the World Wide Web Foundation's Renata Avila, also a Global Voices community member, wrote:

As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world. It follows a precedent set by Chile, the United States, and others which have adopted similar net neutrality safeguards. The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier Internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots. We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web.

A blow for Facebook's “Free Basics”

While the new rules should long outlast this moment in India's Internet history, the ruling should immediately force Facebook to cancel the local deployment of “Free Basics”, a smart phone application that offers free access to Facebook, Facebook-owned products like WhatsApp, and a select suite of other websites for users who do not pay for mobile data plans.

Facebook's efforts to deploy and promote Free Basics as what they described as a remedy to India's lack of “digital equality” has encountered significant backlash. Last December, technology critic and Quartz writer Alice Truong reacted to Free Basics saying:

Zuckerberg almost portrays net neutrality as a first-world problem that doesn’t apply to India because having some service is better than no service.”

When TRAI solicited public comments on the matter of differential pricing, Facebook responded with an aggressive advertising campaign on bill boards and in television commercials across the nation. It also embedded a campaign inside Facebook, asking users to write to TRAI in support of Free Basics.

TRAI criticized Facebook for what it seemed to regard as manipulation of the public. Facebook was also heavily challenged by many policy and open Internet advocates including non-profits like the Free Software Movement of India and the Savetheinternet.in campaign. The latter two collectives strongly discouraged Free Basics by bringing public opinion where Savetheinternet.in alone facilitated a campaign in which citizens sent over 2.4 million emails to TRAI urging the agency to put a stop to differential pricing.

Alongside these efforts, 500 Indian startups including major ones like Cleartrip, Zomato, Practo, Paytm and Cleartax also wrote to India's prime minister Narendra Modi requesting continued support for net neutrality—on the Indian Republic Day January 26.

Stand-up comedians like Abish Mathew and groups like All India Bakchod and East India Comedy created humorous and informative videos explaining the regulatory debate and supporting net neutrality which went viral.

Had differential pricing been officially legalized, it would have adversely affected startups and content-based smaller companies, who most likely could never manage to pay higher prices to partner with service providers to make their service available for free. This would have paved the way for tech-giants like Facebook to capture the entire market. And this would be no small gain for a company like Facebook: India represents the world's largest market of Internet users after the US and China, where Facebook remains blocked.

The Internet responds

There have been mixed responses on social media, both supporting and opposing. Among open Internet advocates both in India and the US, the response was celebratory:

There are also those like Panuganti Rajkiran who opposed the ruling:

A terrible decision.. The worst part here is the haves deciding for the have nots what they can have and what they cannot.

Soumya Manikkath says:

So all is not lost in the world, for the next two years at least. Do come back with a better plan, dear Facebook, and we'll rethink, of course.

The ruling leaves an open pathway for companies to offer consumers free access to the Internet, provided that this access is truly open and does not limit one's ability to browse any site of her choosing.

Bangalore-based Internet policy expert Pranesh Prakash noted that this work must continue until India is truly — and equally — connected:

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