India’s Department of Telecommunications has approved the implementation of what may be described as the world’s strongest net neutrality protections, by prohibiting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from “any form of discrimination or interference” in delivering online content. The Telecom Commission, the most senior decision-making body within the Department of Telecommunications, announced that it would be adopting recommendations put forth by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in November of 2017. DoT’s adoption of net neutrality protections means that such behaviors as “blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content” will be prohibited and license agreements with service providers amended accordingly, according to a statement by telecom secretary Aruna Sundarajan.
The TRAI’s recommendations themselves followed a long battle over net neutrality catalyzed in 2015, when plans by leading operator Airtel to charge customers extra for internet calls were met with a fierce backlash, and the galvanizing of consumer rights and other activists. Early casualties of the Indian fight for net neutrality also include Facebook’s Internet.org initiative. Although initially branded a search service program seeking to offer a limited choice of websites and mobile applications to consumers, many Indian companies feared the undercutting of smaller, local companies and the reduced freedom of choice for consumers.
The principle of net neutrality itself is based on the premise that access to the internet and different sites should not be dictated by service providers, and that ISPs are not allowed to restrict internet access, or engage in the speeding up or slowing down of internet access, based on a user’s ability and willingness to pay. Net neutrality is not only a fundamental underpinning of a fair, open and equal internet, but is also crucial to digital growth in enabling individual content creators and small digital businesses to compete with internet service providers and large companies which they may favor. As noted by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, “neutral networks are critical to ensuring fair, open competition in the content market and driving… growth in the digital era.” Alongside the democratizing effects of strong net neutrality protections, the DoT’s larger National Digital Communication Policy aims to attract $100 billion in investments, approximately 60,000 new jobs and access to high speed hotspots (with broadband speeds of 50 megabit per second) for all citizens by 2022.
Despite the large win signaled by the Department of Telecommunication’s policy announcement, protection for net neutrality is not without exception. The Telecom Commission noted two broad categories, “critical Internet of Things services” and “specialized services,” which are exempt from net neutrality license agreements. These exemptions, which include such services as remote surgery, self-driving vehicles and enterprise-wired networks, were described by TRAI head R.S. Sharma as comparable to the permission given to ambulances to be exempt from obeying traffic laws. However, even taking these few exceptions into account, India’s policy provides for much stronger net neutrality protections than those adhered to or proposed by other countries or regulatory bodies. While the European Union’s 2016 net neutrality guidelines protect net neutrality (with the exception of “specialized services,” examples of which include high-quality voice calling on mobile networks, remote surgery, and live broadcasts over internet TV channels), it remains a contentious subject in the US, where the FCC voted in December 2017 to repeal earlier protections, which expired on June 11th of 2018. So although nearly half of its 1.3 billion-strong population does not yet have internet access, India’s digital infrastructure policy, in addition to falling prices of smartphone and data, means that equal, fair and open access to the internet has never been easier for Indian consumers.