24th April will probably go down in the history of internet in India as the day when Indians recruited in masses and were up in virtual arms to defend the internet against the profit-seeking telecom companies who were trying to establish hegemony over the most lucrative area in the world today- the virtual world aka the internet.
Hordes of emails, pleas and petitions were signed online. Suddenly everyone was talking about net neutrality, how the telecoms are seeking to colonize this domain and how it would impinge on our rights to access a free and fair internet, one of the few entities that are so in a country which is otherwise fraught with inequities and injustices. TRAI was overwhelmed by the incredible response from the users. On 27th April, TRAI made their email addresses public, thus raising a hue and cry from the users for violating their privacy as this exposed them to spammers. As a retaliatory move, members of the Anonymous India claimed to have taken down the TRAI website.
It is going to be a month from that historic day. Let’s ask ourselves- did we achieve net neutrality? Did our revolution pay off?
Going through the legal status of things, we find that there are no laws enforcing net neutrality in India. Although, the TRAI guidelines for the Unified Access Service license promotes net neutrality, it does not enforce it. The Information Technology Act, 2000 also does not prohibit companies from throttling their service in accordance with their business interests. In India, telecom operators and ISPs offering VoIP services have to pay a part of their revenues to the government. The TRAI paper defined the broadband service speed as 512 kbps, which gives the operators leeway to curb speeds. It also stated that OTT or Over-The-Top services are encroaching on the revenues incurred by the traditional voice services. For the operators, whose SMS services have taken a sound beating due to services like WhatsApp, and whose traditional phone services are being stifled by the apps like Skype and Viber, it has become important to ensure a steady stream of revenue.
In the US, the issue of net neutrality raised a ruckus where the users battled against the cable companies who tried their best to classify the internet in a way that would benefit them. Consider a toll bridge. What if the toll keepers instead of collecting a uniform toll, try to extract different amounts of money according to the places the visitors visit? It would be enormously beneficial to them and would put the users at a loss. The same thing is being tried on the virtual level. The gatekeepers of the internet are trying to make some, actually quite a lot of, extra bucks. The FCC published its Open Internet order on March 12 and since then it has been facing challenges from the telecom companies in the US who are trying to delay the order that would prevent them from discriminating between various websites. The latest petition has been rejected but there still is a long way to go.
The same cannot be said for our country. Violations of net neutrality have been common in India. What with Facebook’s Internet.org, Aircel’s Wikipedia Zero along with its free access to Facebook and WhatsApp, Airtel’s free access to Google, and Reliance’s free access to Twitter, it is becoming exigent for TRAI to frame some firm and stringent rules regarding net neutrality and prevent such discrimination from occurring.
The fight for Internet Independence is not yet over. It is a war of the masses; it is a fight to be fought by the users themselves. The battle has only just begun…