Centre for Internet & Society

The debate against differential pricing of data services at the cost of net neutrality doesn’t seem to be getting over yet. While internet activists have gone out on streets in Bengaluru and Hyderabad to protest in favour of net neutrality, industry experts believe that differential pricing, when regulated could be tailored for public interest.

The article by Shadma Shaikh was published in Asian Age on January 7, 2016. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

Given the current situation of low internet and broadband penetration along with lower levels of digital literacy and limited local language support in the country, IT industry body Nasscom said that protection of net neutrality is essential to fight these monumental challenges that require continuous innovation, both in technology solutions and business models.

“We strongly oppose any model where TSPs or their partners have a say or discretion in choosing content that is made available at favourable rates, speed,” Nasscom President R. Chandrashekhar said in a statement.

However, Nasscom also suggested a suitable oversight mechanism in the form of “an independent not-for-profit entity with an independent board to manage proposed differential pricing programs that are deemed to be in the public interest and are philanthropic in nature.”

In view of regulator Trai’s proposal to question the fairness of zero-rating—a practice of not counting certain traffic towards a subscriber's regular Internet usage, Pranesh Prakash, Centre for Internet and Society said, all forms of zero-rating result in some form of discrimination, but not all zero-rating is harmful, nor does all zero-rating need to be prohibited.

Prakash says that Trai’s paper has been inappropriately reduced to a referendum, by both parties—supporters of differential pricing programme as well as internet activists fighting zero-rating. Content-agnostic zero-rating models are not harmful, he says, adding “some traffic, such as government or public interest sites could be made free.”

Facebook’s Free Basics app that aims to provide ‘free Internet access’ to users who cannot afford data packs, has run into trouble for being against net neutrality principle. Trai, while evaluating the zero-rating proposal has asked Reliance Communications, the official telecom partner for Free Basics to put the service on hold.

After drawing flak from critics and citizens over its Free Basics program and its extensive advertisement in the media and on Facebook itself to influence the decision of Trai in favour of zero-rating program, Zuckerberg reached out to Indian readers through an opinion piece he published in an Indian daily newspaper.

Facebook’s justification for Free Basics lies in comparing internet as a service similar to education and healthcare. Free schools, free libraries and public hospitals may not provide the best of services, but their existence is essential to cater to a large set of audience who cannot afford expensive healthcare or education. In the same way, says Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, everyone deserves access to free basic internet service.

Calling Facebook’s Free Basics programme as an illusion, Nikhil Pahwa, founder MediaNama and volunteer at savetheinternet.in said “Facebook’s Free Basics is not free internet.” The choice to determine what data or content to browse should be left to the internet users, he says.