The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has accepted the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) suggestion of adopting the principle of net neutrality. Net neutrality is a principle that says Internet service providers should treat all traffic on their networks equally. Effectively, that means Internet service providers cannot block or slow down access to web content to benefit its own services vis-a-vis those of its competitors. Such practices reduce fair market competition for those engaged in providing services on the internet, as well as affecting the freedom of an internet user to equitably access the contents on the inter web.
The issue of net neutrality came to prominence when, in December 2014, Airtel announced that there the internet service provider would levy extra charges for voice calls from apps providing VoIP services such as WhatsApp, Skype or others.
During November 2017, in its report titled ‘Recommendations on Net Neutrality’, TRAI made an extensive case for applying net neutrality rules that would allow Internet access services to be governed by a principle that ‘restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content, including practices like blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content’.
There is, however, in the unambiguous report, room for certain regulatory safeguards to prevent a blanket operation of the principle of net neutrality that could result in unintended consequences. Permissible exceptions are carved out in the recommendations for ‘specialised services or other exclusions’, often because these are services requiring the level of quality provided to take precedence over the equitable access to them. The report from TRAI contains a detailed analysis of what this comprises of and what are the arguments surrounding the classifications of ‘permissible exceptions’. Moreover, net neutrality would not restrict internet service providers from adopting and practicing reasonable traffic management practices to manage their networks ‘in a reasonable and efficient manner so as to optimise overall network performance and offer a satisfactory quality of services to the users of a diverse variety of content’.
After a long and arduous process involving major public participation and activism (TRAI sought comments from the public and received over a million emails with suggestions for a regulatory framework for a more neutral internet, amongst various other forms of activism), the DoPT agreed to bring the TRAI recommendations into force, pending approval from the cabinet.
License agreements with internet service providers will have to be amended to bring them under the ambit of correct practices under net neutrality principles. The hope is that this brings an end to discriminatory treatment towards internet services and promotes unencumbered access to the user, giving effect to the desired political and economic changes.