Trai releases fresh consultation paper on net neutrality

Trai, in its latest consultation paper on net neutrality, stressed on the importance of a broader understanding of issue among authorities


Net neutrality is based on the premise of all Internet service providers treating all content, utilities and users as equal, without discrimination. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Net neutrality is based on the premise of all Internet service providers treating all content, utilities and users as equal, without discrimination. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Bengaluru: India’s telecom regulator has released its most comprehensive consultation paper yet on the issue of net neutrality, the principle that seeks equal access to all Internet content, emphasizing the need for Internet service providers to not misuse existing Internet traffic management techniques to discriminate.

In documents posted on its website, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) stressed on the importance of a broader understanding of net neutrality among authorities, saying it is “important to identify core principles of net neutrality for India and the types of practices that might be regarded as being in violation of these core principles”.

“Service providers generally use a range of techniques to manage the safety, security and efficiency of their networks. It is important to ensure that such techniques are not used by service providers in a discriminatory manner,” Trai said in documents posted on its site on Wednesday.

“There can be two policy/regulatory approaches to achieve this end. First, a broad approach which involves defining what would constitute ‘reasonable’ traffic management practices. Further, this reference to reasonable management of ‘Internet traffic’ also brings into question the treatment of specialized/ managed services that are delivered using IP but do not serve the same functionality as the public Internet; or those that may require a level of quality that cannot be guaranteed on the Internet,” the telecom regulator added.

Before the latest paper, Trai had partially addressed the issue of net neutrality.

“Given the rapid changes in technology, evolving regulatory/policy environment and fast-developing business models, we need a monitoring mechanism that can remain relevant and appropriate through these changing circumstances,” Trai said on Wednesday.

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Net neutrality activists such as Nikhil Pahwa lauded the latest paper but stressed the need for more checks and balances.

“I think this is by far the most granular consultation paper that we’ve seen. It looks like they (Trai) are trying to address all pending issues in a very clear and decisive manner because of the detail of the questions we saw, it’s just a very sharply defined consultation paper,” said Pahwa, founder of news website medianama.com and a #savetheinternet volunteer.

“Of course I want to add we were very disappointed with Trai’s ruling on free data and believe the ruling goes against net neutrality,” Pahwa added.

In December, Trai recommended an aggregator model and 100MB of free data for mobile phone subscribers in rural or remote areas as part of a push to bridge the affordability gap.

In March 2015, Trai issued a consultation paper on net neutrality, which looked at a number of issues, including licensing of all online businesses, websites and apps; the ability of telecom operators to speed up or slow down sites and also block sites; and finally the issue of pricing and whether service providers could charge differently for using different apps or sites.

Trai then issued another paper at the end of 2015 that addressed the differential pricing issue, but the paper received criticism from all quarters.

In May 2016, Trai released a pre-consultation paper on net neutrality and raised issues related to selective traffic throttling, preferential treatment to content and consumer privacy on the Internet. It floated proposals to explore models for providing free Internet services to consumers within the net neutrality framework, months after barring platforms such as Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero under its differential pricing rule.

The principle of net neutrality is based on the premise of all Internet service providers treating all content, utilities and users as equal, without discrimination. The issue has caused friction between telecom operators, Internet firms and consumers, with all three major stakeholders coming out with their own interpretations of net neutrality.

“This is a fairly exhaustive consultation paper on net neutrality, and it’s clear Trai wants to deal with pending net neutrality issues in a decisive manner. Our plea is application-based traffic management and allowing telecom operators and ISPs to manipulate user access to websites and apps without checks and balances would lead to discrimination,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said in a statement on Wednesday.

The roots of the net neutrality debate can be traced back to December 2014 when Bharti Airtel decided to charge users extra for Internet calls. It rolled back its plan after drawing widespread flak. It then launched the Airtel Zero platform which provided free access to certain websites that paid for the service.

Trai has also sought written comments and recommendations from all stakeholders involved in the net neutrality debate. The deadline for public comments is 15 February and for other counter comments, 28 February.

The Department of Telecommunication has so far opposed platforms such as Facebook’s Internet.org that allow access to certain websites without mobile data charges, while suggesting similar plans by Bharti Airtel be allowed with prior clearance from Trai.

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