'Net penetration in India will be restricted without neutrality' - Times of India

NEW DELHI: Tathagata Satpathy, Member of Parliament from BJD, has written a letter to the Trai chairman, asking for unstinted support to net neutrality — a growing global belief that opposes charges imposed by internet service providers on providing websites. Unless net neutrality is maintained, said Satpathy, internet penetration in India would be restricted and the thriving eco-system of start-ups would be stifled.

The letter, copies of which have been sent to all MPs, communications & IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and to chairman of the standing committee on IT Anurag Singh Thakur, said any move to charge for internet services would hamper the government's ambitious 'Digital India' and smart city programmes, while also creating a roadblock in India's modernisation efforts.

Trai is currently in the process of working out a regulatory set-up for Over-The-Top (OTT) services — like social media and other internet websites that ride on telecom infrastructure. One of the key issues that it is deliberating is whether to allow telecom operators charge a fee from such websites, while allowing preferential and faster access to those who pay for it.

"I oppose this move by Trai which is infringing on net neutrality and I hope that you see sense in the arguments that internet users around the country are making. The internet is no more a 'network that connects computers'. It is now a social network that will help bridge social, economic and regional divides," Satpathy said in the letter.

Charging separately for OTT services will create hurdles in the access to internet, Satpathy said. "We are standing at a juncture where other developed countries are speaking about having internet access as a basic human right. Even the United Nations said back in 2011 that restricting access to the internet counts as human rights violation."

Many of the government's programmes will also suffer. "Our Prime Minister speaks about a 'Digital India' and smart cities, an India that is looking towards the future and encouraging young people to be creative on the online space. The government even elicits public opinion on complex laws and acts over the internet. If this decision by Trai goes through, it will not only go directly against the PM's dream but also against the desires of those which wish to make India a modern nation."

"Startup online shopping companies, which were formed merely two to three years ago are today valued in billions. Telecom companies are seeing an opportunity to make more money by regulating the internet, by signing deals with these startups and giving their OTT apps free access. This move will essentially kill any new startups that don't have enough resources to get permission from Trai or tie-up with big telecom companies. While the present government is busy promoting 'Make in India' and encourage startups, Trai is allowing big companies to form monopolies over the mobile web."

Satpathy said net neutrality is a crucial subject. "It's not an 'elitist' problem, as many are arguing. It is going to affect even the poorest who now have cheap phones with internet enabled on them. As phones get cheaper and phone networks spread further, the number of internet users in India is going to shoot up... We are a growing country and we should have proper laws in place, not to regulate, but to encourage the use of internet."

Satpathy passionately argued that the internet was like electricity. "If you start charging people separately for electricity that is used for heating, cooling, entertainment etc, there will be a massive outrage about that. The internet is essentially the same. It is a free medium and telecom companies operate pipelines that provide access. People are paying to access the internet and the data transfer, not because they want to use specific services, which the phone companies provide.

"When Tim Burners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, he could have easily turned it into his personal fiefdom and would have been a billionaire. But, he had the foresight to see that this network will change the face of how humans will communicate with each other. He gave it to the people as a collective, so that no single person can dictate how the network operates. This is an essential element of why the internet is what it is today. This freedom allowed developers and engineers to get creative. Today, we carry the world's wealth of human knowledge in our pockets. Trai cannot control the internet by charging separately for services that are created by the very people who believe in the idea of free access to information and knowledge.

"India is currently a country with the second largest base of internet users in the world, right after China. In your consultation paper, you have pointed out that 83% of these users access the internet through phones. The growth of mobile internet users in the last one year alone has been staggering. In this scenario, any person, who looks at these figures would say that we have a vibrant and growing online business market.

He also sought a "complete overhaul" of the information technology and communication laws.


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