Bengaluru: Amod Malviya, Flipkart.com’s chief technology officer (CTO), has publicly supported Net neutrality even after the company entered talks to join Airtel Zero. On Tuesday, Flipkart withdrew from talks to join Bharti Airtel Ltd’s marketing platform, bowing to pressure from protests by the public on social media against the move. Airtel Zero is said to violate the principle of Net neutrality, which prohibits price discrimination between Internet services based on data use. Malviya spoke about why the company pulled out of talks with Bharti Airtel, how it arrived at the decision and its plans to promote Net neutrality. Edited excerpts:
What made you withdraw from the talks, especially considering that chief executive Sachin Bansal had defended Airtel Zero just a few days earlier?
We’ve always understood very well the damaging effects that it (not having Net neutrality) can have. And we’ve always been completely against these things. Even before news came out about us being in talks to join Airtel Zero, we’d been deliberating whether it was the right thing to do or not. When the news came out, we were only midway in the whole discussion (about whether it was the right thing to do or not). It took us some time and we ended up getting a fair amount of flak as well. We finally concluded the discussion and found that zero rating would hurt Net neutrality. We have a much more informed and deeply convinced view about Net neutrality now.
Who took the final decision to pull out of the talks with Airtel?
All the top leaders were involved, people at the senior leadership level. It wasn’t just about taking a transactional decision on a programme. It was about making a long-term public commitment to keep the Indian Internet network-neutral.
What was finally the trigger?
It was a process. We’d started the discussion internally (about whether zero rating violated Net neutrality) as soon as we entered discussions with Airtel. When the news came out, we had to respond. We ended up putting out only some specific points about our view on the subject. The public view led to an acceleration of the discussion we were having. Ultimately we concluded as a group that this is something that we not only want to stay away from, but actively work towards ensuring that Net neutrality stays in India in a very strong form.
What are some of these things you plan to do to promote Net neutrality?
We believe that (violating Net neutrality) is not healthy. We, as industry leaders, have to actively work towards it. There are steps that we are just about to conclude. These would be across various forms. One is in terms of supporting the movement—folks who are supporting Net neutrality—how can we contribute to that; participating in any kind of forum that helps devising any kind of framework or code of conduct on Net neutrality; trying to rally the industry and other industry leaders towards a consensus.
How did you react to the customer backlash?
There was an outcry on the public media. We saw a large amount of education among people, especially among critical users, on this matter. There was an impression earlier that Internet users may not care too much about this, but it was very heartening to see people take so much interest. It gives me confidence that our Internet is headed in the right direction. Zero rating is a more complicated matter than other aspects of Net neutrality and that’s why it took us time to take a call. But the (customer backlash) is not the only reason we took the decision. If that was the only reason, we wouldn’t be actively supporting Net neutrality.
Net neutrality is already being violated in India.
Yes, it’s true; there are various programmes that keep on happening which violate Net neutrality. Various Internet companies are signing up for deals that violate Net neutrality. When we talk of supporting Net neutrality, we aren’t just talking about ourselves. We’re talking about doing everything to ensure that the whole industry takes the same approach to Net neutrality.
Considering you’d taken a public stand in favour of Net neutrality, was it awkward for you that there was such a big outcry against Flipkart?
You have to remember we’d only entered into talks with Airtel. My stance on Net neutrality hasn’t changed. I’d been participating in internal discussions. There was no awkwardness. If anything, I’d like to think that the Flipkart culture allowed us to put across our point of view reasonably well. We’ve got a fairly open culture and this doesn’t apply just to Net neutrality.