New Delhi: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India still has some questions on free data services. After issuing a ruling on differential pricing of data services in February this year, the regulator floated another consultation paper on Thursday on “Free Data” . This one focuses on schemes that can provide either free data or data reimbursement without dependence on the service provider. As opposed to a model like Free Basics, which provided a select few websites or a “walled garden” for free , this paper invites comments on the viability of a model that has the “benefits of offering free data while avoiding the ingenuity that the Differential Tariff Regulation is meant to prevent”. In other words, free data, that can be used to access any part of the internet.
The paper cites the example of mCent and Gigato, which give users free data in return for using their platform. That data “earned” or subsidised in this manner can be used to access any part of the internet. Neither the TSP nor the app decides what the user can or cannot do with this “free” data. This is in contrast to the other model, which the TRAI’s ruling in February had barred. This model involved only a closed set of services being provided for free or at a low price by a service provider, hence violating the principles of net neutrality. Facebook’s Free Basics was one such example.
The paper released on Thursday says that after the last ruling, certain stakeholders approached the regulator expressing “a need to have some TSP agnostic platform which can facilitate app developer to promote their website by providing some incentive to user for making their website popular.” The paper links this with serving the “under-connected” or “unconnected” populations in India. This TRAI paper asks if there is a need for such a model, if such a model should need regulation, and if such a model should be extended to fixed line broadband as well. Written comments are to be sent to the regulator by June 16 on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Certain net neutrality activists have questioned the need for a new paper to discuss this model of providing free data. In the February ruling, the regulator had said: “providing limited free data that enables a user to access the entire internet is not prohibited.” It also made an exception for emergency online services. Nikhil Pahwa, founder of digital news website Medianama and a founding member of the Save the Internet dot in coalition, says he welcomes the clarification on the consultation, but doesn’t see the need for it. “There are a couple of issues raised in the paper which we believe have already been addressed. The issue of a platform, and not a telecom operator, zero rating specific websites is the same thing that Free Basics was doing, and it was denied in the last consultation. Also, the idea of a website tracking the usage of their website and reimbursing users the exact amount of cash for that usage had the same impact as zero rating does. These models should not be allowed,” says Pahwa.
Researcher Anja Kovacs, director of The Internet Democracy Project, says the paper is both “welcome” and “surprising”. “While we are somewhat surprised that the next consultation paper that TRAI issues on net neutrality after the one on differential pricing is about this issue, rather than many of the other crucial ones that had been flagged (such as traffic management, throttling, and blocking), this consultation paper as such is a positive step to move the debate on democratising Internet access in the country forward,” she says.
The point of “information diversity” was also raised during the last consultation. This refers to a system wherein the service provider, app, or web platform cannot define or restrict what you view. Chinmayi Arun, research director at the National Law University’s Centre for Communication Governance, says that maintaining information diversity with “free data” programs is essential for net neutrality. “I hope the TRAI adheres to its strong commitment to access to the plurality of information being a part of our constitutional rights,” she says.