Centre for Internet & Society

While Airtel has put out a statement on the pull out by Flipkart, other operators are playing a cautious game.

The article by Lalatendu Mishra and Pradeesh Chandran was published in the Hindu on April 15, 2015. Pranesh Prakash gave his inputs.

It’s a major victory for the proponents of net neutrality and a big setback for service provider Airtel. As the e-commerce firm Flipkart pulled out of talks on joining the controversial Airtel Zero platform, launched by Airtel last week, the debate on net neutrality has taken a fresh turn in the Indian context. In the wake of a virtual uproar in social media and following wide condemnation by votaries of net neutrality, Flipkart has to just give in. With Flipkart-induced new twist in the net neutrality game, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), mostly telecom operators, are running for cover without knowing how to deal with the evolving situation that has the potential to adversely affect their business.

While Airtel has put out a statement on the pull out by Flipkart, other operators are playing a cautious game. And, they are unwilling to comment on a subject that has become an emotive issue. There are, however, voices which seek a middle path as solution to this issue.

“We are in favour of net neutrality. But this has to be defined in the Indian context. That is what TRAI is precisely doing. The debate on net neutrality is appropriate and important. All stakeholders should be able to decide what is net neutrality for India after due debate,” said Rajan Mathews, Director-General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “We must have a holistic approach to this issue. There should be rational debate, and we are committed for open and non-discriminatory Internet,” Mr Mathews added. A thought must go into protecting the interest of telecom operators as well, he felt.

While supporting net neutrality, analysts have voiced concern over its impact on the finances of telecos. “Net neutrality is a fair concept but it must take into account the concerns of telecom operators and ensure that their revenue and margins are not significantly impacted,” said Rajiv Gupta, Partner and Director, BCG. “Some kind of middle path needs to be achieved,” Mr Gupta said. Only a few countries so far have made net neutrality into a law. “We are yet to see whether our government’s moral support for net neutrality can translate into a law,” Mr Gupta added.

Surprisingly, Airtel which has come under flak on two occasions in last four months for alleged violation of net neutrality norms, too, has pledged its support for net neutrality! “Airtel fully supports the concept of net neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform Airtel Zero. It is a not a tariff proposition but is an open marketing platform that allows any application or content provider to offer their service on a toll free basis to their customers who are on our network… The statement made by Flipkart regarding their decision not to offer toll-free data service to their customers is consistent with our stand that Airtel Zero is not a tariff proposition. It is merely an open platform for content providers to provide toll free-data services,” Airtel said. Without spelling out the future of Airtel Zero, it said “The platform remains open to all companies who want to offer these toll free data services to their customers on a completely non-discriminatory basis.” Over 150 start-ups have already expressed willingness to come on board Airtel Zero.

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society, said, “The need for net neutrality is very real and urgent. There are many practices that telecom companies are trying to engage in, such as blocking of WhatsApp to force customers to pay more money for it, which ought not to be allowed.” On Airtel Zero plan, he said “We should clearly separate out the issue of "zero rating" from that of "net neutrality". ``Only anti-competitive instances of zero-rating - for instance, Airtel offering it's own Hike service for free, or Airtel entering into an exclusive deal with Flipkart for zero-rating its app — are problems. Competitive zero-rating, with regulatory safeguards to ensure a fair and efficient marketplace, should be allowed, just as we allow free TV channels and allow toll-free numbers. Banning is akin to a brahmastra in a regulator's arsenal: it should not be used lightly,” Mr Prakash said.

No such plans: Snapdeal

Snapdeal said, “We have no such plans at this point, especially given the regulatory framework is unclear.’’

Zero rating is a practice among mobile network operators, where customers are not charged for a certain volume of data by specific applications or internet services.

An Amazon spokesperson said, “Amazon supports net neutrality - the fundamental openness of the Internet - which has been so beneficial to consumers and innovation.”

Earlier, Facebook and Reliance Communications had partnered for Internet.org. Reliance had announced in 2012 that it would offer free Facebook and WhatsApp for Rs 16 a month, without any additional data costs.

Amidst the debate on net neutrality, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said a six-member panel had been constituted by the telecom department to submit its recommendations regarding the same by early next month.

Start-ups for net neutrality:

Sumit Jain, Co-Founder & CEO, CommonFloor.com

“It’s well acknowledged that Internet has disrupted the world of business like no other technology has in last few decades. It has enabled start-ups with hardly any capital and clout to make a mark. So by rejecting net neutrality, we will be shutting the door on the entrepreneurial aspirations of millions and will leave telcos to play the gate-keeper to a valuable resource as the Internet and challenges the democratic behaviour that Internet in known for”.

Sameer Parwani, CEO & Founder, CouponDunia

“We will stand for net neutrality. India has been in the forefront of digital world. It is the Internet that has given the country hope and aspirations to the common man to be informed and entertained. Not being able to give equal access will just make the situation anti- competitive and it will have a negative effect on the upcoming businesses.”

Kashyap Vadapalli, Chief Marketing officer, Pepperfry

“Lack of net neutrality supports a monopolistic market which will adversely affect the growing start-up eco-system. While heavily funded businesses will be able to maintain their supremacy over consumers start-ups will stand to lose out heavily. We do not encourage discrimination of any sorts when it comes to consumer's access to information.”

Yogendra Vasupal, Founder of Stayzilla

“Airtel Zero seems like an innovative solution to bring Internet to every person. Whether this is on a firm footing or a slippery slope will be decided by the actual implementation. The current way of individual companies buying Internet for their consumers is a slippery slope. The right way to do it would be through a central consortium formed from the e-commerce companies and who has the interests of both the start-ups in this sector and the end-users in mind. After all, Internet is all about freedom of choice. Keeping in mind that currently it would be free only if you use a particular company makes it free at the cost of the freedom of choice it offers. This is everyone's loss.”

Ritesh Agarwal, CEO, OYO Rooms

“Net neutrality is absolutely essential for a free and competitive market especially now since there is a start-up boom in the country particularly in the online sector. Most importantly, Internet was created to break boundaries and as concerned industry players, we should maintain that. We support net neutrality and will do all needed to build this further.”