It's easy to say that e-tailer Flipkart's decision to walk away from Airtel Zero, a program to provide web services to people for free while violating net neutrality principles, was forced upon the company by irate customers. But that ignores the fact that the customer isn't the only factor companies have to keep in mind – they're also worried about competitors. This becomes incredibly clear in the Times Group's conditional "commitment" to leave the zero-rated, a service similar to Airtel Zero.

"In the case of the group's properties such as TimesJobs and Maharashtra Times, where its competitors are not on zero-rate platforms, these properties will pull out of," the Times Group, featuring some of India's biggest publications and web services, said in a blogpost. "As for the Times of India itself, the group commits to withdraw from if its direct competitors – India Today, NDTV, IBNLive, NewsHunt, and BBC – also pull out."

The Times went on to add that it was encouraging fellow language and English news publishers to join the campaign for net neutrality and withdraw from zero-rated schemes. This isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for neutrality, because it is entirely contingent on competitors following suit.

Zero (Sum) rating

Flipkart, following a campaign from neutrality advocates to downvote the etailer's app, completely walked away from negotiations with Airtel over its zero-rated package that many believe violates neutrality. It too could have said it will only do so if Amazon did the same, but instead decided to stick its neck out and acknowledge that it exists because of a free and fair internet.

The Times Group isn't doing the same. Instead, it's only pulling out those products where there isn't direct competition on zero-rated platforms. Elsewhere, it is saying that it will jump on the neutrality bandwagon, but only if everyone else does too. And "everyone" here includes not just local companies like NDTV and IndiaToday. The Times has also asked the BBC to pull out before it will.

A report in the Economic Times, citing a Times Group "source" – although it is unclear whether this source is from the group's administrative, technical or public relations arms – made the company's position even clearer: principles are all well and good, but beating the competition is as important.

Conditional neutrality

"Our statement is a little conditional because we have competitors that are there. Our internal stance is that we won't ever be first or only one to zero rate. But won't take a position that hurts competitively," a Times source told ET.

This doesn't mean the Times' decision, ambiguous and half-baked as it is, is not relevant. The group commands tremendous resources, with the editorial heft of the Times of India, the Economic Times, TimesNow and Navbharat Times – some of India's most influential news outlets – putting their weight behind the neutrality cause. The Group has also turned neutrality into a campaign that people can join.

Times Group's move is likely to influence the decision-making elsewhere too. NDTV and NewsHunt, two of those named by the Times Group, have indeed withdrawn from, although both those organisations made their withdrawal unconditional.


Confounding conspiracies

The Times Group's decision has also inspired unhappy responses from others. Financial Express editor Sunil Jain, for example, called the Economic Times report "mischievous" and criticised the Times for its approach.

In the Indian Express, a sister publication of the Financial Express, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman Rahul Khullar was quoted saying "a corporate war going on between a media house and a telecom operator which is confounding already difficult matters."

It's clear that without net neutrality, there is a tremendous opportunity for certain firms to gain an advantage by doing deals with internet service providers. The Times Group's worry is essentially that if it unilaterally withdraws, a competitor could sign on to a zero-rated scheme, giving people free access to a competing service and thereby gain market share.

That means that the Times Group's position does involve commercial interest, but it could easily have gone the other way. The Times could have exploited its dominant position in the market and used zero rating even further. Khullar's comment suggests its might have been miffed at not being invited to do so by a telecom company. Even if this were true it simply points to why laying down neutrality principles would be useful – all companies would be force to approach the internet from the same starting point.