In definitive action to support the continuance of providing access to the Internet without discrimination, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has upheld the highest principles of democratic ideals. The decision supporting Net neutrality bans initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics, essentially a bare bones access service to bring the unconnected billion Indians on to sample the Internet. In keeping the Internet an open platform with equal access to all, India’s decision could have worldwide repercussions for the plans of international technology giants as well as Indian telecommunication companies which had nurtured ideas of virtually gifting access in return for using a massive bank of people as a captive audience for advertising, data mining, and so on.
Discriminatory pricing for accessing the Internet is anathema to the seamless web. For a country like India — which with several pro-active policies treats segments of people differently — to accept true democracy and become a world leader of non-discrimination represents a brave new approach. India’s very active civil society must be thanked for exposing the designs of the Internet’s “gatekeepers”, who would apportion access in such a manner as to utilise the user base to make up for charging no fee for access. In effect, India is saying everyone must pay for Internet use, which is a fair enough principle considering there is a huge cost involved in bringing that access, particularly to the remote places.
While it is simplistic enough to demand equal access, to bring that access to more than a billion people who are not on the Internet today, despite there being close to a billion mobile phones in use, is a difficult task. Corporate initiatives to make it possible are not to be brushed aside. Surely Facebook will rethink its approach to devise ways to make its plans work for connectivity. The way forward lies in adopting open sources of connectivity that give every user the freedom to choose what information he wishes to access or which medium of entertainment he prefers. Google’s Loon project, envisaging the use of balloons rather than expensive hardware to beat the nature of the terrain and the spread of people across vast distances, is an excellent initiative.
There is a huge need to bridge India’s digital divide, which may also get worse in the days to come as telecos offer differential speeds to customers depending on the ability to pay. To connect nearly 80 per cent of the population and give them equal opportunity to learn while allowing start-ups and small content providers to disseminate knowledge and offer services without discrimination is going to be a big challenge....