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There are no free-riding services on the internet: India must uphold net neutrality

To protect rights online, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) must not implement the measures published in its consultation paper on regulatory mechanisms for internet services. Through an open letter, Access Now, the Internet Society, and 22 other civil society organisations and technical experts are urging TRAI to endorse net neutrality by preserving non-discriminatory access to online content, applications, and services for everyone.

TRAI’s paper, Consultation Paper on Regulatory Mechanism for Over-The-Top (OTT) Communication Services, and Selective Banning of OTT Services, dated 7 July 2023, invited comments on the feasibility of introducing an authorisation framework, network usage fee, and selective banning of internet-based services. These measures, if implemented, will fragment the internet, undermine people’s rights, and stifle innovation.

At the outset, we must question the term ‘OTT’ to denote internet-based services. The notion that some internet services ‘free-ride’ on telecom infrastructure is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works. All internet platforms, irrespective of the service they provide, use the general-purpose internet and pay service providers to host and access data. Demands for a special user fee by telcos are unfounded. Telecom operators are gatekeepers to, and not proprietors of the internet. Neeti Biyani, Senior Advisor, Policy and Advocacy at the Internet Society

Introducing unnecessary costs and imposing a licensing or authorisation regime, without any demonstrable market failure, will stifle innovation and the economy. This undercuts India’s image as a leader in the IT sector and its aspirations to be a global leader in the digital space. Further, selectively banning applications is not a reasonable alternative to blanket internet shutdowns as both result in a violation of human rights and support no evidence for their effectiveness. 

As the democracy with the largest number of people using the internet, India plays a crucial role in impacting the internet’s openness. This global leadership demonstrated by the Indian Department of Telecom and TRAI in their network neutrality rulemaking in 2016-17 is in jeopardy. Ensuring unhindered access to a free, open internet is crucial for a rapidly digitising country like India, and the upcoming Telecommunication Bill and Digital India Bill must not undermine these standards. Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific Policy Director, Access Now

TRAI must continue to honour its 2016 decision and adhere to its recommendations on net neutrality. Further, Access Now and the Internet Society urge authorities to: 

  • Recognise that internet-based services cannot be regulated in the same manner as telecom service providers and brought within the framework for licensing or impose any fees for network usage;
  • Protect and strengthen net neutrality, and refrain from implementing any measures that undermine this crucial rights-respecting principle; and
  • Prevent selective banning of platforms, which would hinder the goal of an open, safe, trustworthy, and accountable internet.