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Facing up to Facebook and others on net neutrality

Civil Society News, New Delhi

When the telecom regulator in India ruled on 8 February against discriminatory pricing of data on the Internet, it was celebration time for the Save The Internet campaign. A motley bunch of activists had argued against commercial monopolies and successfully taken on the combined might of Facebook and Indian telecom service providers.

If the original policy proposals had gone through, the way the Internet is used in India may have changed forever with a few companies gaining a stranglehold on access. Based on commercial considerations, they would decide which websites would be seen and which wouldn’t. 

In the spotlight was Free Basics with which Facebook was offering some websites free but charging for others. It was already in a deal with Reliance Telecom and seeking to get more telecom providers on board.

Before Free Basics came along, there was Airtel Zero, by which Airtel introduced the idea of zero rating. With zero rating Airtel wanted to give access free to users, but would charge hefty fees from Internet businesses like Flipkart for directing traffic to them.

Both concepts seem pro-user, but in reality limit freedom of choice by deciding which websites users should visit. Once controlled in this way, the Internet would cease to be the driver of empowerment and innovation that it has been.

Activists of the Save The Internet campaign therefore demanded clear rules to ensure net neutrality or unhindered access to websites that users choose to go to.

The regulator’s ruling on discriminatory pricing means telecom companies cannot make data partially or selectively free. They have been stopped from getting into deals under which another Internet business pays for the data with the sole purpose of directing users in its direction. Such deals would discriminate against websites and the user’s freedom of choice. It is only in ...

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