LAST week marked a significant event in the life of digital India, in a country that is home to more than 400 million internet users.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) passed a regulation prohibiting discriminatory tariffs on internet connections sold to end customers by telecom service providers. The verdict states in no uncertain terms that any form of differential pricing based on the content accessed by users is disallowed.

This is a verdict strongly in favour of the principle of network neutrality (or net neutrality for short). And by implication, it makes Facebook’s “Free Basics” programme illegal in India.

This is significant, for Facebook’s so-called-charity programme has been seen for what it is. India has stood up to one of the biggest multinational internet companies, in the face of tremendous pressure, the public face of which has been Facebook’s advertising blitzkrieg. Reason has won and propaganda has not.

Part of Facebook’s propaganda has been a wilful misrepresentation of net neutrality, casting it as an abstract and academic and dispensable principle. Nothing really could be further from the truth. Net neutrality is a simple and natural principle: “a post office should not open letters, or care about the identity of the sender” — the internet has been analogous to a large postal network. Neither the principle nor its implications are beyond any common person.

Some example implications are as follows. (1) The post office should not charge users based on whether the envelope contains a personal letter or a cheque for a million dollars. (2) The post office should not delay or discard letters based on what is written inside, or the identity of the sender.

In Free Basics, Facebook opens up people’s letters, and decides which ones to charge and which ones not. A subtlety easy to miss is that Facebook is not even the post office, but a self-appointed middleman. While this makes Facebook’s motives questionable, it seeks to cast it as charity, as a gift.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has upheld the natural principle of net neutrality.

TRAI’s verdict not only affects Facebook’s Free Basics but also a host of other similar programmes which charge on a differential basis, mostly by providing free access to certain select music and video websites. It has seen such practices as unfair and anti-competitive, as marketing gimmicks that trap hapless customers.

The best argument offered by Facebook and others supporting Free Basics has been “some internet is better than no internet”. While this may be true, what is provided by the programme is not the “internet”, but a small set of websites “approved” by Facebook.

But there are many other ways to provide “some free internet” in the true sense of the word. Limited free internet can be provided by limiting any of (a) time duration of access, (b) volume of access, or rate of access. In fact there are cellular operators in India who have chosen such alternatives (e.g. Aircel’s free basic internet programme), and these continue to be legal.

For all its propaganda, Facebook does not publicise any field study of the countries where Free Basics is available. Is the programme really beneficial? One would be hard pressed to find any meaningful field study showing any evidence that the programme is indeed beneficial for the “poor”.

The victory for net neutrality comes despite Facebook orchestrating an opinion poll, designed to make its case with the TRAI. The opinion poll posed a “can’t-say-no” question to Facebook users, making them send a form letter email to TRAI. One wonders what the impact of such tactics would have been if deployed in the US, Facebook’s home country.

If there is to be another version of Free Basics, Facebook would be well advised to begin charity at home, to build credibility, for it is certainly not the case that everyone in the US can afford internet data packs. In the meantime, we hope that TRAI’s verdict would have impact beyond India, in other countries seeking to save themselves from digital colonisation.

TRAI must be praised for standing up and making a decision of historical significance and global consequence.

The writers are on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.

The Statesman / India

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2016

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