Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jan 28, 2016
Three principles to guide net neutrality regulation

India has seen much debate on the issues of net neutrality and zero-rated platforms for more than a year now, and in South Asian markets these debates are some of the most polarising of the digital age. Boiled down, the principle of net neutrality is one of non-discrimination in the transfer of internet traffic from content providers to users – but in developing markets, the issue is more complex. Proponents of net neutrality argue that every user must have the right to access an open internet, while others claim that access to a “smaller” internet is still a better option to bridge the digital divide for those who would otherwise have no internet access at all.

Net neutrality, zero rating and the open internet are topics which have captured public interest and attention in a big way. In India, hundreds of thousands of people mobilised to bombard the telecom regulatory authority with demands for net neutrality. The re-branding and attempted re-launch of Facebook’s zero-rated platform has similarly spawned many commentaries. Despite wide interest in the topic, discussions can only go so far, given the absence of hard data on the effects of net neutrality violations and zero-rated platform usage. The argument that meaningful access would increase on the back of free platforms, for example, is one that will only be proven in the long-term. Moreover, digital markets in South Asia are undergoing changes in terms of the kinds of services people are able to access. In the midst of these changes, is it better to regulate in anticipation of future problems, regulate for the present, or forbear until the situation becomes clearer?

Dedicated legislation is certainly one way to address open internet concerns, and some countries have taken that step, notably Chile, Brazil and the Netherlands. Other options include the application of competition and anti-trust law; equal rating, where free or subsidised access is limited by the volume of data used, irrespective of the type of service; open-access policies as part of telecom licenses to ensure infrastructure sharing; self-regulation by industry players and the like. While international examples are useful, the peculiarities of each market mean that they cannot be directly adopted by other countries. They can be helpful, however, in determining the kinds of principles that underpin legislation and regulation, which can be adapted to suit South Asian contexts.

Many suggest that the guiding principle for net neutrality regulation should be transparency. As long as users know what the limitations of their usage are, they can make informed decisions about, for example, which service provider to use. Traffic management, say through the slowing of high-bandwidth services like video streaming during peak usage hours, can be seen as a form of net neutrality violation. Yet there is no clamour for traffic management to be abandoned completely: it is vital to ensure that the network as a whole remains operational, in the same way that traffic lights are necessary to keep roads functional. Clearly stated traffic management principles, in conjunction with minimum quality of service standards, provide a way for networks to run efficiently without the impression of partiality to any particular content. Users could then also make a decision about whether to stay with their service provider or switch to another. This is particularly appropriate in a telecom market like India’s, which is highly competitive. If it were to emerge that an internet service provider was favouring their own business partners – a concern given numerous instances of vertical integration – a consumer could abandon the provider for a more impartial one. By the same token, the agreements which lead to certain content and services being available on zero-rated platforms should be made clear to users. This however, would require a competitive market in zero-rated platforms as well; at the moment there are very few such providers, limiting the choice available to users. Regulation could address this by reducing barriers to entry where possible.

Another concern is the centralisation of data and access on zero-rated platforms. Particularly if governments choose to deliver essential services through these platforms, it is very likely that large amounts of personal data will pass through these networks. How secure would this data be, and how would it be used in the future? Additionally, if a bulk of users were to rely on zero rating as their only form of internet access, they would stand to lose essential services and everything else if the zero-rated platform was withdrawn for commercial or other reasons.

India is not unique in the fact that it has multiple entities deliberating on the issue of net neutrality. One option for India and other developing markets would be to unify the strands by creating a single body that could act as a regulator or adjudicator in case of violations. In the meantime – as empirical data on the actual effects of zero rating and net neutrality are being collected --  regulation must remain flexible to balance market concerns with policy imperatives like universal access.

This blog is based on a series of roundtables conducted by ORF and the Centre for Internet & Society in association with the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania on 12 December 2015.

Read the full report here: South Asian Perspectives on Net Neutrality

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