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Net Neutrality: An idea for the government

"My natural instinct as an internet user and as a lawyer tells me Net Neutrality is non-negotiable and we have to fight for it", writes Former Union Minister Kapil Sibal.

Kapil Sibal        Last Updated: April 21, 2015  | 18:21 IST

Former Union Minister Kapil Sibal
Net neutrality, as commonly understood and explained, is the freedom to search and surf anything you want online freely, visit any website of your choice, and use any service you find useful.

Your ISP (Internet service provider) has no say in the matter, and cannot discriminate between your chosen sites, services, by either charging you differential rates, or by controlling your bandwidth.

My natural instinct as an internet user and as a lawyer tells me Net Neutrality is non-negotiable and we have to fight for it.

Anyone wearing a political hat would be fuzzy on the topic, and pass the decision-buck to others, like the present government and ministers are doing.

So, why not for a moment, pause and reflect on net neutrality from a social development and economic growth perspective?

Digital India has been on the Government's agenda for years now, and the proliferation of telecom and internet services has been on overdrive since the liberalisation of this sector under UPA-I.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flaunts this initiative as a game changer and encourages not just the people, but also more departments to embrace technology that rides on the internet.

So, when we speak of equity in access to information, and of equal opportunity to provide consumer services in our economy, is there any place for preferential bandwidth and zero-rated data?

No. And Yes.

The challenge of growing internet penetration and internet adoption for both service providers and users is the cost of setup and maintenance.

It costs a lot of money to distribute quality internet services across the length and breadth of India. It costs money for users to access these services and then pay for the data they consume.

As more and more information and services get loaded onto the internet, the cost of using these services will increase. Everyone has always known this, and everyone has been looking for ways of bringing down these costs.

Years ago, someone from a consulting firm remarked to me "I wish we could find ways of distributing content to one group of people, and having another group of people (companies) paying for it!".

I was told this was a common refrain in the marketing and communication industry trying to ride the emerging waves of mobile and broadband connectivity.

I wonder what he and his industry colleagues are thinking now.

That being said, why throw the baby out with the bath water?

Internet.org was launched in India a few months back with Reliance Communications and it even received a lukewarm welcome, perhaps due to its Zuckerberg lineage. But with the controversy surrounding Airtel Zero and partners opting out of the program, Internet.org saw high-profile exits from its offering as well.

Both platforms are meant to carry much-needed data and reach people and places that normally wouldn't have access to things like job news, healthcare information, skills development, and engagement with the government. Besides of course, basic news, views, entertainment, and access to commercial products and services normally available only in metros and urban areas.

By blocking or discouraging these platforms, aren't we also adding impediments to the growth and adoption of the internet in India?

The question for us to pause and reflect is: how does the Government spread basic information and provide governance services to the common man, if the government isn't paying for it and the common man doesn't have money to pay for it?

If Digital India has to pay dividends in the long run, who will foot the bill in the short term?

A couple of years ago, the argument could have gone differently. If Airtel Zero was launched before the recent spectrum purchase, the Government could have argued that the company can easily absorb the cost of providing the abovementioned non-commercial data with zero rating on its networks.

But now that it has knowingly and gleefully extracted its pound of auction flesh as "realities of market forces and pricing", the Government is faced with the challenge of accepting products and services born out of "market and economic realities".

Now as a nation we constantly struggle to be fair to both the rich and the poor, and to balance the needs of corporate entities as well as individual citizens. We have to be sensitive to both, and provide encouragement to both, because economics aside, common sense tells us each needs the other to grow.

So, how about we pause and reflect on the solutions to this problem slightly differently? Find an answer that isn't biased toward any one, but for the benefit of both?

Dear Shri Narendra Modi and the BJP Government,

How about defining and allowing internet packs that contain both commercial and social offerings?

How about we brand them Digital India Packs that contain 30 per cent commercial data, 30 per cent news data, and 40 per cent socially and locally relevant and useful data?

Like the mandate for satellite TV service providers to distribute Doordarshan as well. Only in this case, social services should be prominent on the homepage UI and easily accessible to even the newest of novices online.

Set data caps for commercial products, and ensure their adherence.

Encourage telcos and ISPs, both private and public sector, to distribute these freely. Let members of corporate India keen on reaching these audiences for commercial benefit, pay for the social benefit as well.

In this way, not only will we help our digital netizens, our regular citizens will benefit as well.

Pause. Think about it!

The author is a lawyer and a former Union minister

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