Net Neutrality : DoT panel okays Airtel Zero but rules against Facebook’s Internet.org

Facebook’s Internet.org that allow access without mobile data charges to certain websites is learnt to have been opposed by a DoT panel on net neutrality, while suggesting that similar plans such as Airtel Zero be granted with prior clearance from TRAI.

However, the panel has stated that “collaborations between telecom operators and content providers that enable such gate-keeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged”, sources said.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Telecom Minister had directed the Department of Telecom (DoT) to form a panel on net neutrality and give its suggestions on the matter.

Net neutrality suggests that equal treatment be given to all Internet traffic and no preference be given to an entity or company depending on service providers or payment to content such as telecom companies, which is seen as prejudicial. After telecom operator Airtel launched a platform, Airtel Zero, the neutrality debate heated up in India that would give free access of some websites on the network. However, the companies were asked to pay Airtel for joining the platform.

On the other hand, Internet.org, which is a Facebook-led initiative targets to get 5 billion people online in partnership with mobile operators as well as tech giants like Qualcomm and Samsung. In India, it had tied up with Reliance Communications. According to the sources, this project has been criticized for failing to comply with net neutrality principle and supporting Facebook’s own services over its rivals say the DoT panel. However, Facebook, has said at various forums that the project is pro-Internet access and hence does not break the principle.

They said the panel however has given preference to zero-rating platforms, like Airtel Zero by allowing them but with a condition that operators should take prior consent of telecom regulator TRAI to launch it or take action against such plan if they are founding breaking the principle of net neutrality, sources said. While the DoT did not reply to e-mail query send in this regard, Facebook spokesperson said “Until we have the DoT panel findings we are not in a position to comment.” Earlier, the Internet.org gave limited Internet access to subscribers RCom, the panel is said to have noted.

The source said “The panel observed that until April 2015, Internet.org users could have free access for only a few websites and Facebook’s was seen as gatekeeper in determining what websites were in that list. This was seen as violating net neutrality. In early May 2015, due to severe criticism, Facebook opened it to websites that meet certain criteria”. It also noticed that large organisations with market have begun to create closed ecosystems that profit their business model in the long run.

Sources said the DoT panel report has been submitted to the Telecom Minister. The panel has recommended that if the plan of telecom operators is found in violation of net neutrality, they should imply penalty or fine on them, which is to be described by the government.

Sharing the details of the report, the source said “There have been business models by large organisations to increase their user base but unfortunately these initiatives are considered non-competitive, restrictive and in conflict with net neutrality principles.”

The market for content provision point out that clear market leaders arise in a short while and if they are able to prescribe the path to precise and clear content, then the principles of non-discriminatory access from a user point of view can be settled.

“The committee, therefore, recommended that content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value even if it is for an ostensible public purpose,” the source said.

Meanwhile, the panel officially agreed to allow zero rating platform after telecom operators compared it with toll free number.

After taking into consideration all views expressed by network operators and net neutrality proponents, the committee felt that there are a large number of possibilities in designing tariff plans and everything cannot be checked in advance on parameters of net neutrality.

For dealing with tariff plan that included zero rating, the panel put forward “ex-post regulation” and “ex-ante determination” model for consideration.

The panel has proposed telecom operators to observe current practice of filing tariffs before the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India under ex-ante determination and the regulator should carefully examine it on scale of net neutrality before giving its permission.

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