For some time now, India’s internet providers have been offering internet packages that give users access to some services at different prices from other features. This is a blatant violation of the principle of net neutrality – that all data on the internet should be treated the same. To make things worse, it comes disguised in the form of free apps.
India’s telecom regulator has this month invited comments from the public and industry bodies on whether internet providers should be allowed to charge different rates for certain kinds of online services. The debate is part of a global discussion about net neutrality, and has occasionally been pitched as a foreign import that doesn’t apply to India.
However, Indian telecom operators, like Airtel and Reliance, as well as big tech companies that have supported net neutrality elsewhere, are already violating the principles of an open internet in India.
No free lunch
“Facebook, Google and Wikipedia have been long violating net neutrality in India,” said Nikhil Pahwa, publisher of medianama.com, who has long been advocating a free internet. “It’s another thing that we don’t notice it, but giving free access to a certain service is discriminatory to other services.”
Airtel, India’s largest mobile network, decided in December 2014 that they would charge more for calls made through services like Skype and Viber, but had to roll back the decision after outrage on social networks.
Others, however, are using a cannier approach to violate net neutrality. They offer services like Facebook or Twitter for free, making it seem like a bonus for the users. In effect, what they are doing however, is forcing you to pay for competing services.
So Reliance’s deal with Facebook, called Internet.org, effectively gives you one social network at no cost, while forcing you to pay for others like LinkedIn. It might seem like the company being generous, but it only works because Facebook and Reliance were able to strike a deal. A smaller social networking firm that doesn’t have Facebook’s resources or influence would find it harder to build an audience, because they’re competing with a free service.
Pahwa pointed out that this strategy could result in dominance of major players in the market and crowding out of others who can’t afford to “strike deals or pay up for getting access to the fast lane”.
Here are a few examples of net neutrality principles being broken in India:
Facebook’s ambitious project to provide certain internet services for free includes a mix of websites on news, entertainment and weather updates. A lighter version of the social networking site arrived in India in February. However, concerns were soon raised about it violating the principles of net neutrality as it allows preferential access to certain services it deems fit only to the customers on Reliance’s network in India.
Globally as well, the project drew flak from many technology websites that argued that it is “internet’s new gatekeeper” that tramples over net neutrality.
Wikipedia Zero on Aircel
In July 2013, Wikipedia entered in a partnership with the mobile company Aircel to provide free-of-cost access to its lighter mobile version to Aircel’s 60 million mobile subscribers. The project was seen as a positive step for improved access to Indian citizens but many around the world have expressed concerns that Wikipedia Zero is violating net neutrality.
Google’s Free Zone on Airtel
In June 2013, Airtel launched a Google Free Zone service that allows users to access certain Google products such as search, email and Google+ free of cost. The service was only free in the boundaries of Google products and users were charged for any extra usage like attachment downloads or even clicking on third-party links that weren’t hosted by Google.
Reliance's Twitter for free
Reliance Communications has offered free access to Twitter time and again to its mobile subscribers. The company also signed a deal for the ICC Cricket World Cup this year and allowed users to access the service for free for full one-month period.
Aircel offers Facebook and WhatsApp
Last September, mobile provider Aircel also made access to Facebook and WhatsApp free of data consumption for its users who bought data packs. The company started offering 10 MB data free every day for users with data packs specifically to be used on Facebook or WhatsApp.