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Digital India at the expense of Net neutrality?

Saket Suman |

One of the most exorbitant programmes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought to the limelight is his Digital India campaign, "to transform India into a digitally-empowered society and knowledge economy". In his symbolic meeting with the bosses of top tech and IT firms during his recently concluded US trip, the Prime Minister made a point to meet the top Silicon Valley CEOs, from Google’s Sundar Pichai to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Modi told the CEOs that the Digital India initiative was an enterprise for transformation, unmatched in human history" and several of the CEOs pledged their support to Digital India. But almost at the same time, the debate around net neutrality came to surface once again. Prime Minister’s chemistry with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the social media giant’s headquarters in California may have been greeted enthusiastically in Silicon Valley but Facebook’s controversial initiative, seems to have gained momentum after his visit. The cyber experts and social media enthusiasts are "concerned" over Zuckerberg’s most exorbitant enterprise,, a Facebook-led initiative to bring affordable access to selected Internet services, which many of them say is in violation of net neutrality.

On Digital India:

The Digital India programme is centred on three key vision areas: Digital Infrastructure as a Utility to Every Citizen; Governance and Services on Demand; and Digital Empowerment of Citizens (see Box). The official website of Digital India ( states, "A well connected nation is a prerequisite to a well served nation. Once the remotest of the Indian villagers are digitally connected through broadband and high speed Internet, then delivery of electronic government services to every citizen, targeted social benefits and financial inclusion can be achieved in reality. One of the key areas on which the vision of Digital India is centred is ‘digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen’. A key component under this vision is high speed Internet as a core utility to facilitate online delivery of various services. It is planned to set up enabling infrastructure for digital identity, financial inclusion and ensure easy availability of common services centres. It is also proposed to provide citizens with "digital lockers", which would be sharable private spaces on a public cloud, and where documents issued by government departments and agencies could be stored for easy online access. It is also planned to ensure that the cyberspace is made safe and secure."

One of the most prolific visions of this programme is the digital empowerment of the citizens. Cutting across demographic and socio-economic segments, Indians are increasingly connecting and communicating with each other through mobile phones and computers, riding on digital networks. The Digital India programme itself promises to transform India into a digitally- empowered society by focusing on digital literacy, digital resources and collaborative digital platforms. This also places emphasis on universal digital literacy and availability of digital resources/services in Indian languages.

On net neutrality:

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003. According to him, "The best way to explain network neutrality is as a principle to be used when designing a network: that a public information network will end up being most useful if all content, sites and platforms are treated equally. A more detailed proposed definition of technical and service network neutrality suggests that service network neutrality is the adherence to the paradigm that operation of a service at a certain layer is not influenced by any data other than the data interpreted at that layer, and in accordance with the protocol specification for that layer."

Proponents often see net neutrality as an important component of an open Internet, where policies such as equal treatment of data and open web standards allow those on the Internet to easily communicate and conduct business without interference from a third party.

In simple words, net neutrality means when a service provider sells you data they don’t get to choose how the data is used. The idea is that the Internet Service Provider, from whom you buy your Internet pack, should not under any circumstance be able to control how exactly you use it. It is up to the consumer, how they wish to spend the data that they have bought from the Internet Service Provider. Recent moves by telcos to offer some apps for free to their users have outraged cyber activists. Critics are of the opinion that this will lead to the creation of two types of Internet Free and Paid which is aggressively against the idea of net neutrality. Telcos like Airtel, Reliance, Uninor, Idea and Tata Teleservices have several tie-ups in offering preferential access to a few apps.

"The Internet has been the greatest equaliser in recent times. On the demand side, irrespective of whether you are poor or rich, access is available to all. The same applies on the supply side. It’s irrelevant whether you are a Fortune-500 company or a startup, you have equal opportunity to sell your goods and services in a net-neutral world. I strongly believe that under no circumstances should net neutrality ever be compromised," bestselling author Ashwin Sanghi told The Statesman.

The present scenario

Ankit Chaudhari, Founder and CEO, TechHeal Canada Inc and Enkarnation, delved into the state of net neutrality in India at present and told The Statesman, "We are at the beginning of the Internet era and a large part of current Internet penetration is via mobile devices only. Today’s need is larger acceptability and penetration of the Internet. Real play will only begin when the era of connected homes or Internet of Things starts to penetrate not only the Indian but Global Homes. For me ‘net neutrality’ is only a debate for the future being picked up way too early on the curve. If we really want the advantages that a human being connected to the Internet can garner, penetration is the key and it cannot happen in a completely neutral environment. There is a cost associated to the effort of bringing Internet to every home and either the service provider or the government (indirectly this refers to the tax we pay) has to bear that cost."

The government and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) are blending towards the view that there is a need for a public law bringing out "dos and don’ts" to ensure net neutrality. "At present, there are no legal provisions for either the government or the regulator to enforce non-discriminatory access to the Internet," added Zafar Rais, CEO, MindShift Interactive. "Net neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, start-ups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination. It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing Internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for start-ups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned." Rais suggested that it would be a good move to get things legally on paper, while Internet access in India is still at its infancy.

Zuckerberg’s is in collaboration with Reliance Communications, clearly implying that only Reliance users will have the so-called "free access" to Facebook and a few other associated platforms. Social media enthusiasts have also claimed that is Facebook’s tactic of increasing its user base rather than providing "free Internet" as it only allows access to certain websites.

"Any service, which conflicts or restricts my choice as a user to visit any destination on the network, is in violation of the law of the land and, therefore, is in violation of net neutrality. India needs to be very careful that it does not adopt these kind of schemes without looking into the legal gratifications," noted cyber law expert Pavan Duggal told The Statesman.

The Supreme Court advocate, in no uncertain terms, expressed his disapproval of the controversial scheme. " from Facebook does not appear to be neutral for the very simple reason that it only wants to lead the users or traffic to certain websites. It does not allow you the flexibility of choice to go to any platform or website on the Internet that one wants to go. So in that sense it tends to make you a prisoner of these limited websites and, therefore, violates the principle of net neutrality," he added.

Another serious concern that social media enthusiasts raise is the fact that the general public is yet to find out the "exact modalities" of what is going to be offered. "Facebook is yet to make it clear what websites they are going to host under their ‘free access’ scheme. This principle simply implies that start-ups like me stand no chance because the already existing heavyweights can pay more to Reliance and hence be featured under,"Milan Vohra, a Bangalore-based technology start-up entrepreneur told The Statesman over telephone. "If the PM really supports what he says ‘stand up India, start up India’ he must prevent the violation of net neutrality because start-ups depend heavily on it."

"Facebook’s has come under huge disparagement in India over the current debate over net neutrality. Facebook’s free Internet zero-rating app is also in violation of net neutrality," added Zafar Rais.