A battle that could decide the future of the internet in India is being fought online, between telecom users and operators.
In less than a week, more than 800,000 Indians have sent emails to India’s telecom regulator, demanding a free and fair internet.
Activists set up websites like netneutrality.in and savetheinternet.in. A video on net neutrality by a leading comedy group went viral, in much the same way that British comedian John Oliver’s show on net neutrality changed the debate in the US last June, and flooded the US regulator with user support for net neutrality.
Also, some leading companies, including the media behemoth Times Group, have pulled out of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, fearing it threatens the principle of “net neutrality”.
Net neutrality means service providers should treat all traffic equally. Users should be able to access all websites at the same speed and cost.
In India, the trigger was a 117-page paper published by the regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), titled Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services.
Over-the-top services include apps like Skype or WhatsApp that ride on top of telecom operators’ networks.
Users do pay data charges to access them, but they may eat into operator revenue, such as when users make free Skype calls instead of paying the operator much more for a long-distance call.
The paper followed an attempt by leading operator Airtel last December to charge extra for internet calls. A user backlash followed, and Airtel withdrew the plan.
Activists focused on Airtel Zero, a platform that allows customers to access mobile applications for free, with the internet data charges being paid by the companies owning the application.
This is called “zero rating”, and operators call it toll-free data. The data charges are paid by the app vendor.
India’s biggest online retailer Flipkart pulled out of a deal with phone network Airtel to let customers browse its site for free – Flipkart planned to pick up their internet data costs – after a social media backlash.
Both the retailer and the phone network said they supported net neutrality.
Meanwhile, US regulator FCC has published its rules that will likely enforce net neutrality from June. Its pro-net neutrality stance has major backing from large technology players such as Google and Amazon.
In India, though, those firms have been mostly quiet on the subject.
Google has been part of “zero-rated” deals with telecom operators, which activists say violate net neutrality.
An Amazon India spokesperson told the BBC that the online retailer supports a “non-discriminatory open internet” to promote affordable access for all to the Internet. “Consumers should not be denied highest quality access to the content of their choice because of discriminatory pricing,” a statement said.
However, not everyone is backing the extreme “net neutrality or nothing” stance of the activists.
Some free-market advocates and investors point out flaws in it, especially in possible over-regulation.
Alok Mittal, a Delhi-based investor in internet businesses, is one of them.
“I am not in favour of pricing guidelines and restrictions, or excessive government interference in a free market. So I am okay with zero-rating,” he says.
“But I am against throttling or slowing down some services.”
Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of India’s leading internet entrepreneurs and founder of job site Naukri.com, says he supports net neutrality, but worries more about net freedom.
“TRAI’s idea of licensing OTT apps is scary,” he says. “India must not be denied access to great apps and services by a licensing regime. Start-ups and young apps developers might have to apply for a time-consuming licensing process, stifling innovation.”
Activists have accused the TRAI of bringing out a consultation paper whose questions are framed in a way sympathetic to the telecom industry, suggesting an outcome that could be in favour of telecom operators.
The paper itself says: “the two extremes – strict network neutrality and no regulation – are inherently flawed. Banning all discrimination is over-inclusive.”
However, all that may have changed with the sheer volume of user response, which has taken the operators, the regulator and even the activists by surprise.
India’s ruling BJP government had set up a committee to study net neutrality issues, and it will submit its report next month. Given the public opinion, that report may well tilt toward stronger net neutrality.
In the US, the debate has moved ahead, with the imminent enforcement of the FCC rules on net neutrality.
That has already triggered lawsuits with AT&T suing the FCC, following lawsuits filed by four consortiums of cable, wireless, and telecom firms.
That could be the likely outcome in India, too, as operators, financially stretched by expensive spectrum auctions, high energy costs, and extremely low revenues per user, go to court to challenge a decision that they say would block off an avenue to supplement data revenues.