Don't dilute net neutrality

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)'s crucial recommendations to put "explicit restrictions" on "any sort of" discrimination in internet access, be it  in the form of tariff or speed, must be welcomed and brought into effect as the rules of the game by the government as quickly as possible. The regulator must be  lauded for coming out with the recommendations, which are quite clear and leave little chance for interpretation or manipulation by some of the telecom service providers (TSPs) and internet service providers (ISPs), joining hands  with social media giants to provide free or the least-priced internet, all in the name of widening access. Everyone knows that neither the service providers nor the content providers want this for the greater good, as often proclaimed. The catch lies in the fact that such an arrangement gives TSPs and ISPs power to determine whose content reaches their subscribers (first) and whose does not, and thus disadvantages both consumers and companies that can't or won't pay for the privilege.  

A battle over net neutrality, the term used to refer to the current internet traffic rules where no such discriminatory access exists, is being waged across the world. The US, under the Trump administration, is tilting towards scrapping this foundational principle of the internet economy. But such a proposition would run contrary to the national ambitions of India, not only for the government but for business, industry and society at large. Yes, India does want to spread internet access to each and every citizen even in the remotest parts of the country, but that cannot come at the cost of the net neutrality principle. That principle is what made the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter possible. If India is to let its start-ups compete against companies with deeper pockets and produce the likes of an Amazon or Facebook, net neutrality must be preserved at all costs.  

The Trai recommendations, brought out after wide consultations, seek to plug loopholes that may be exploited by some operators. While the initial signals from the government have been supportive of the Trai recommendations, lobbying is still underway to push India in the direction of discriminatory practices. The arguments being advanced by a section of the industry are quite narrow in approach and would, if accepted, ultimately result in the internet effectively becoming an exclusive enabler for a few, rather than for all, Indians. The Trai Chairman R S Sharma is right in pronouncing that the internet belongs to everyone and should not become the exclusive property of a few. That message must go out from the government, loud and clear to all stakeholders.  

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