Net Neutrality: Here is what the DoT Committee report mean

In the world of internet, net neutrality has become one of the biggest issue in India and a matter of debate for tele companies as well as the netizens. And with the release of the Department of Telecommunications committee on the issue, we’ve officially entered the second phase of this all-engaging issue.

Marco Angelo D'Souza

In the world of internet, net neutrality has become one of the biggest issue in India and a matter of debate for tele companies as well as the netizens. And with the release of the Department of Telecommunications committee on the issue, we’ve officially entered the second phase of this all-engaging issue.

From the moment we as a user base became aware of the issue (the trigger) to those weeks during which the conversation around the subject reached a crescendo around the entire Airtel/Flipkart/TRAI issue from mid-April (peak of inflated reaction,) we now stand somewhere between a trough of disillusionment and a slope of enlightenment. Of course the plateau of productivity is still a ways off. But the Net Neutrality debate now appears to be at a fairly good place, given the amount of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, hype and reaction this issue initially spawned.

Coming back to the committee’s findings, there actually is quite a bit packed into their 111-page report. While many of the findings are elaborated using dense and jargon-heavy statements that make for long-winded sentence structures, the meat of the report is in its final chapter--the Summary of Recommendations.

Here are some of the key findings from that section, and what they imply so far as us everyday Internet users go:

The Committee unhesitatingly recommends that “the core principles of Net Neutrality must be adhered to.

The primary goals of public policy in the context of Net Neutrality should be directed towards achievement of developmental aims of the country by facilitating “Affordable Broadband”, “Quality Broadband” and “Universal Broadband” for its citizens.

That’s heartening to know. All in all, a positive (though generic and broad) set of statements that are clearly pro Net Neutrality.

User rights on the Internet need to be ensured so that TSPs/ISPs do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, post any legal content, application or service on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use.

Right on. This suggests users should be free to use the Internet for anything lawful, without any restriction on the part of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) or Telephony Service Provider (TSP).

OTT services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed.

Great. So everything from VoIP to messaging applications can be used with no problem, with encouragement to develop new ones. But somehow this rings too good to be true.

Specific OTT communication services dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments.

Ok, so it is unclear what ‘specific OTT communication services’ comprise and why these need to be called out separately when the previous statement appears to blanket the OTT space. This point will require subsequent clarification.

Regarding VoIP OTT services (Skype, WhatsApp voice etc): In case of VoIP OTT communication services, there exists a regulatory arbitrage wherein such services also bypass the existing licensing and regulatory regime creating a non-level playing field between TSPs and OTT providers both competing for the same service provision. Public policy response requires that regulatory arbitrage does not dictate winners and losers in a competitive market for service provision.

The existence of a pricing arbitrage in VoIP OTT communication services requires a graduated and calibrated public policy response. In case of OTT VoIP international calling services, a liberal approach may be adopted. However, in case of domestic calls (local and national), communication services by TSPs and OTT communication services may be treated similarly from a regulatory angle for the present. The nature of regulatory similarity, the calibration of regulatory response and its phasing can be appropriately determined after public consultations and TRAI’s recommendations to this effect.

The first part describes the current situation of service providers (cellular companies and ISPs) are required to pay license fees, while VoIP apps don’t need to. This, they suggest, effectively tips the scales against the service providers. The second part implies that international VoIP call services should be approached liberally (perhaps continuing with current-day low prices?), but domestic VoIP calls (both local and national) should be treated and priced similar to each other. So they appear to suggest something like a Skype call to a domestic number being priced similarly to a cellular call to a domestic number.

They finally state the specifics of this public policy should be the outcome of public consultation and TRAI’s recommendations on these pertinent VoIP issues.

Legitimate traffic management practices may be allowed but should be “tested” against the core principles of Net Neutrality.

TSPs/ISPs should make adequate disclosures to the users about their traffic management policies, tools and intervention practices to maintain transparency and allow users to make informed choices

Unreasonable traffic management, exploitative or anti-competitive in nature may not be permitted.

In general, for legitimate network management, application-agnostic control may be used. However, application-specific control within the “Internet traffic” class may not be permitted.

Traffic management practices like DPI should not be used for unlawful access to the type and contents of an application in an IP packet.

Improper (Paid or otherwise) Prioritization may not be permitted

Application-agnostic congestion control being a legitimate requirement cannot be considered to be against Net Neutrality. However application-specific control within the “Internet traffic” class may be against the principles of Net Neutrality.

Mechanism to minimize frivolous complaints will be desirable.

All of these recommendations suggest that ISPs should disclose all traffic management policies to users and should, above all, be in conformance with the principles of Net Neutrality: exploitative, unreasonable traffic management and anti-competitive practices may not be permitted.

Tariff plans offered by TSPs/ISPs must conform to the principles of Net Neutrality set forth in guidelines issued by the Government as Licensor. TRAI may examine the tariff filings made by TSPs/ISPs to determine whether the tariff plan conforms to the principles of Net Neutrality.

Voice and data service providers’ tariff plans should be in line with the principles of Net Neutrality. So no more sudden and underhanded increases in service prices without users’ knowledge.

Content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value in violation of core principles of Net Neutrality, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose.

This speaks directly to services like Internet.org. Users should be able to utilize these without their experience being affected in a way that reflects a violation of the principles of Net Neutrality.

A clause, requiring licensee to adhere to the core principles of Net Neutrality, as specified by guidelines issued by the licensor from time to time, should be incorporated in the license conditions of TSP/ISPs. The guidelines can describe the principles and conditions of Net Neutrality in detail and provide applicable criteria to test any violation of the principles of Net Neutrality

National security is paramount, regardless of treatment of Net Neutrality. The measures to ensure compliance of security related requirements from OTT service providers, need to be worked out through inter-ministerial consultations.

This could be a nebulous area--while suggesting that national security is paramount, this clause is likely to leave a door open where any OTT service provider or TSP/ISP looking to flay Net Neutrality could simply cite ‘national security’ issues. If implemented, this area would need further detailing.

While this report represents a step in the right direction, the Net Neutrality issue is still young, with plenty of discussion ahead before any kind of consensus is achieved. If you have thoughts to share, feel free to comment here or ping us on Twitter.

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