On Wednesday, June 11, Telecommunications Secretary and Chairwoman of the Telecommunications Commission Aruna Sundararajan announced that the “Telecom Commission approved net neutrality as recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).” The adoption of these rules, and the decision to amend license agreements to be subject to these rules, is a welcome regulatory step.
TRAI’s recommendations, published last year, would ban “any form of discrimination or interference” with data, including “blocking, degrading, slowing down, or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content,” and have been described as among the world’s strictest net neutrality regulations. However, the rules also do create some exceptions for two specific kinds of services and technologies, including “critical Internet of Things services” as well as “specialized services” such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), autonomous vehicle development, and remote surgery.
These recommendations came a 18 months after the regulator ruled to prohibit differential rates for services, thereby banning platforms such as the Facebook-led Free Basics, and Airtel’s Airtel Zero. However, other key tenets of net neutrality, such as the throttling of speed or unequal access remained to be resolved through a public consultation process. That process concluded in November 2017, when TRAI recommended that the government of India prohibit “any form of discrimination or interference” of online content by internet service providers (ISPs).
TRAI’s recommendations, therefore, also aimed to ensure that these tenets of nondiscrimination and equal access would be enforced by recommending that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) amend the license agreements between the government and ISPs, writing that it “has recommended an amendment to the license agreements to clarify the principle of unrestricted access given under the appropriate license agreements.” TRAI also outlined a “proportionate, transient, and transparent” manner in which ISPs can manage traffic, noting that traffic management would be acceptable in specific situations (such as emergencies or to secure the network from cyberattacks).
However, the regulatory body’s recommendations also created openings for “permissible exceptions” to the applicability of these core tenets of nondiscrimination and unequal access. Indeed, “specialized services,” as defined by the DoT, would be exempt from net neutrality exemptions. R.S. Sharma, the chairman of TRAI, further explained these exceptions, noting that they would only be applicable to “certain services were quality of service is essential,” comparing such services to “an ambulance being allowed to pass through in case of emergency.”
Despite the DoT’s approval of net neutrality, industry players are continuing to lobby for changes before the recommendations are implemented. Indeed, the Cellular Operation Association of India has argued that TRAI’s recommendations would hamper innovation and are calling for the regulations to adopt a “light touch.” Indeed, as the decision heads before the Cabinet for approval, Rajan Mathews, the director general of COAI, has said “we hope that the Cabinet will consider the concerns raised by the industry so that the Net Neutrality rules that are adopted in India benefit the consumers, incentivize innovation and adoption of new technologies, and enable the seamless spread of state of the art networks and service.”
Despite this push from industry, the Cabinet should not weaken net neutrality regulations when it considers them next. TRAI’s net neutrality principles are central in democratizing the internet for India’s 391 million internet users, the second largest in the world. Indeed, as India continues to expand internet access to more of its citizens, the principles of net neutrality will ensure that no user faces content discrimination or unequal access from their ISP.
India’s Telecommunications Commission has taken a major step forward by approving TRAI’s recommendations for net neutrality regulations. The Cabinet must now actualize this decision, and push forward with amending license agreements to ensure compliance with India’s new net neutrality rules.