The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has upheld the principle of an open Internet and recommended that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be prohibited from discriminating between their web traffic by either blocking some apps, websites and services or by offering ''fast lanes'' to those who pay for the privilege. In a long-awaited report on net neutrality released on Tuesday, the telecom regulator said it was not in favour of any "discriminatory treatment" with data, including blocking, slowing or offering preferential speeds or treatment to any content.
If the government accepts the proposal, ISPs will not be able to block or throttle any web traffic or offer fast lanes for content providers who pay for the facility. Trai had partially addressed the topic of Net neutrality in February 2016 when it ruled in favour of prohibiting discriminatory tariffs for data. It barred platforms like Facebook's 'Free Basics' and Airtel Zero which allowed free access to select websites.
This was considered 'gate-keeping' and creating 'walled gardens' in cyber space which is against the concept of Net neutrality. The move came after an extended campaign by internet activists against Facebook's free basics platform. The new regulations go a step further and recommend prohibiting any service provider from throttling data speeds.
"The core principles of net neutrality, non-discriminatory treatment of all content, treating internet as an open platform, we've upheld them," said Trai chairman RS Sharma. Sharma said Internet is an important platform for the country, especially in the context of innovation, startups, online transactions, various government applications, and the Digital India programme. "So, it is important that the platform is kept open and free and not cannibalised," Sharma told reporters.
Trai has also suggested changing licence terms of ISPs to explicitly restrict any form of discrimination in Internet access based on content. It has proposed to bar services providers from creating partnerships that will have a discriminatory effect based on content, sender or receiver, protocols or user equipment, except in special cases like court orders and government directions.
The regulator has recommended for DoT to set up a panel of telecom operators, ISPs, content providers, civil society organisations and consumer representatives to monitor and probe violations. Further, Trai wants telecom operators to declare their traffic management practices as and when deployed and the impact it may have had on the users. Internet firms lauded Trai's recommendations, while telecom operators said that the regulator has applied a 'narrow definition' to the topic.
Telcos wanted over the top players such WhatsApp and Skype that offer voice services to be regulated as they are competing for the same set of services. Meanwhile, activists said the report did not mention a timeframe for implementing the recommendations. In India, the whole debate over net neutrality erupted in 2015 when Trai came out with a consultation paper on the regulatory framework for over-the-top services.
Telecom operators say that as the traffic is going through their infrastructure, for which they have spent crores of rupees, they need to get some control to manage the traffic. Trai's stance is in contrast to that of the US Federal Communications Commission which had last week unveiled plans to rescind so-called net neutrality rules championed by former President Barack Obama. Last week, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had also reiterated that the Centre is firm about its pro-net neutrality stance and that the right to access the internet is non-negotiable.