India’s Department of Telecom (DoT), in its preliminary findings, has said that Bharti Airtel’s sponsored content service and Reliance Communications’ zero-rating deal with Facebook/Internet.org are “against the spirit of net neutrality”.
A high-level government source told the Economic Times that this is the view after its initial assessment. “Any final decision regarding the two services will be taken only once the expert committee of the ministry submits its recommendations on the entire gamut of issues related to net neutrality”.
The DoT is reportedly waiting for the telecoms regulator to make a recommendation by the end of the month on the issue as well as the broader concerns about the internet giants, or the so-called over-the-top (OTT) players, getting a free ride on operators’ networks. But with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman recently retiring, the matter will likely be delayed.
A TRAI official said in mid-April that the sponsored content and zero-rating access deals may violate the principles of net neutrality. That response came just days after a leading Indian e-commerce provider Flipkart decided not to get involved with Airtel’s sponsored data service called Zero, following protests from net neutrality supporters.
When Airtel launched Zero in April, the Internet & Mobile Association of India said all apps should be accessible to users on a non-discriminatory basis.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was then forced to defend Internet.org and a few weeks later Facebook announced plans to expand the services available to make it more transparent and inclusive. It introduced what it said is an open programme for developers to create services called the Internet.org Platform.
The controversy over zero-rating access and Internet.org goes far beyond India, where the India Netizens and Internet Entrepreneurs Welfare Association (INIEWA) in early May sent the DoT a legal notice asking for zero-rating access plans to be banned.
Last week 67 digital rights organisations from around the world, including the newly-formed INIEWA, sent a joint letter to Zuckerberg, which was posted on Facebook, complaining that it was not doing enough to promote net neutrality and criticising it for building a walled garden.
The stated objective of Internet.org is to provide data connectivity to two-thirds of the global population. Facebook has deals with dozens of operators around the world and recently announced partnerships with Robi in Bangladesh and Indosat in Indonesia.
Internet.org claimed recently that one billion people have potential access to its free basic services and nine million people have used it to get online for the first time.
In defending the initiative’s non-discriminatory credentials, Zuckerberg said Internet.org “doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes – and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining”.
India’s second largest operator Vodafone said last week it was waiting for the regulator to issue its report on net neutrality before making a decision on offering zero-rating access with partners, the Times reported.