The Net neutrality debate in India led to the blocking of zero-rating services. A similar debate in the EU can help resolve issues related to Net traffic management and specialised services in India
A pre-consultation paper on Net neutrality
is now floating around, with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India seeking comments by June 21. This follows on the heels of asking for stakeholder views on over-the-top services, differential pricing for data services, and on other issues related to Net neutrality.
The buzz surrounding Net neutrality is not confined to Indian shores; the ripples of an unexpectedly successful campaign for Net neutrality in India have caused ripples in Europe too.
As the European Union embarks on a public consultation process on Net neutrality, the response of Indian citizens to zero-rated apps — the concept of certain applications, such as Facebook’s Internet.org, being provided free to customers — has emerged as one of the talking, even rallying, points for a similar campaign in Germany.
This month, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) has launched a public consultation to interpret the new Net neutrality law passed in October 2015. Activists have called the current law an “ambiguous” one with “crucial loopholes” that could undermine the concept of a level playing field online.
“The law is neither with the telecom companies nor with the activists. It has been overcomplicated and could be interpreted either way,” says Thomas Lohninger, an activist who is a part of the savetheinternet.eu campaign which has nearly 22 digital rights organisations across Europe under its ambit.
Corporate response so far
The ambiguity of the existing law has already spurred telecom companies to offer special services. In April, Telia, a Swedish state-owned telecom company, began offering zero-rating with Facebook services. The heads of major Swedish media houses issued an open letter condemning the agreement. They wrote: “We’ll suffer from a loss of diversity in media, and we’ll risk losing the right to publish ourselves… Many users will surely jump at the offer. It may seem like a bargain in the beginning. But if the price is that our public discourse is regulated from Menlo Park, California, then that price is far, far too high.”
In Germany, Deutsche Telekom, which is partially state-owned, stirred up a storm when its CEO Timotheus Höttges said days after the EU passed the law: “Start-ups need special services more than anyone in order to have a chance of keeping up with large Internet providers… By our reckoning, they would pay a couple of percent (of their revenue) for this.”
Statements such as these make the process of public consultation “critical” to ensure an implementable and fair set of guidelines, says Mr. Lohninger.
Surprisingly, though Internet penetration in Europe is nearly 80 per cent (around 35 percentage points above the world average), the drafting of the legislation began only a couple of years ago. The process culminates in a public consultation that is being held at the moment, between June 6 and July 18. By the end of August, the guidelines will be published and enforced. This may well be a marquee point in the global Net neutrality debate.
Unlike the Indian consultations which focussed only on zero-rated applications, the EU law is comprehensive in tackling two other major challenges of Net neutrality: specialised services, which enable faster access to certain applications which have tie-ups with Internet providers, and traffic management, which allows Internet providers to peruse data and decide which Internet traffic is important and which is not, rather than the current system of equal distribution.
Where India comes in
At this year’s Re:publica, one of the largest conferences on digital rights in Europe, held in Berlin in May, the Indian campaign as well as the U.S. guidelines featured prominently as the “new hope for Europe”.
The emphatic ‘no’ heard in Indian public consultations for zero-rating — which was marketed as giving the poor ‘some Internet’ instead of ‘no Internet’ — is a lesson for Western politicians who are “worried” about stopping free zero-rated services, says Barbara van Schewick, Director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, whose research has shaped the U.S. response to Net neutrality.
“The Indian response is remarkable, because they saw this as affecting their start-ups and local voices,” she said at the meet. “There was a huge mobilisation, and in the end, the Indian regulatory came up with a nuanced version of zero-rating legislation. It is a model for what we can do here.”
This is also the rallying cry for the SaveTheInternet campaign, which is travelling across the EU to gather support. It is following a strategy similar to that adopted by Indian activists. Instead of a ready-made template, which is helpful in India where awareness of digital rights is still nascent, the Europe campaign has the option of answering a few questions about Net neutrality. Based on the responses, a template will be generated and sent to BEREC, the EU, or member states.
The number of responses in India was big (2.4 million) and even more so in the U.S. (4 million), but this may not be possible for the inherently-fragmented EU. Activists hope for “hundreds of thousands” of comments.
If the Indian zero-rating guidelines can be a model for Europe, then faulty European guidelines can set in motion a worrying global domino, particularly in the Global South.
“[Hitherto, in terms of digital rights and data protection], the EU has been setting standards far beyond its own regional reach, especially in places where democracies are still in the process of elaborating their constitutional and legislative systems. If the EU can’t abide to high standards, why should others make a fuss about it,” asks Cathleen Berger, programme lead for London-based Global Partners Digital and an advisor on digital rights. If the EU falters, it would give many governments of Africa and Asia that seek control over the Internet a leg-up, she says.
Moreover, EU remains a major trading partner for most regions, and an adverse Internet law could affect fair competition and establish monopolies.
Mr. Lohninger explains: “This is why we are looking to countries such as India to be involved in these consultations. For, if the Internet is not neutral, then Indian start-ups, for instance, will struggle to enter the European market, and we potentially lose out on the services of a half a billion users of the Internet.”
India, which figures on top in the plans of Internet companies which are scrambling to “connect the last billion”, may well have to learn from the European legislation. Discussions on specialised services and Internet traffic management are yet to be resolved. Only the first few battles have been won, making it prudent for India to keep an eye on Europe over the coming months.