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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has finally released its recommendations on net neutrality. Upholding the basic principles of equal and non-discriminatory access to the Internet, TRAI has stated that no Internet service provider in the country will be allowed to partake in any kind of restrictive activities like slowing down, degrading or blocking of bandwidth.

TRAI said in the report, “A licensee providing Internet Access Service shall not engage in any discriminatory treatment of content, including based on the sender or receiver, the protocols being used or the user equipment.”

The development comes at a time when the US government’s Federal Communications Commision (FCC) announced plans to repeal net neutrality regulations that were adopted in 2015.

As part of its recommendations, TRAI has also called for alterations to the terms of existing license agreements of Internet service providers, in order to reflect their adherence to the principles of non-discriminatory treatment of content.

According to the telecom ministry, the new guidelines will be applicable to all Internet services and some “specialised services” as well. To ensure proper enforcement of the rules, the regulator has also recommended the establishment of a multi-stakeholder body for monitoring purposes.

Commenting on the development, a spokesperson for NASSCOM said, “As India undergoes its data revolution, we welcome TRAI’s commitment to the preserve the democracy of the Internet and user rights to the freedom of speech and expression. Net neutrality is core to the future of India’s digital economy. The recommendations are completely consistent with the basic construct of NASSCOM recommendations calling for unrestrained and unimpeded access to all lawful content and services subject to national regulations related to security and privacy, and preventing service providers leveraging their exclusive control over access infrastructure to speed up, slow down or selectively enable or prevent access to certain content. We believe that the recommendations made by TRAI should be evaluated and taken up for implementation in a speedy manner.”

The government had originally asked the TRAI to submit recommendations on net neutrality in March 2016, in order to finalise its official policy on the controversial issue. Towards the beginning of this year, the regulatory body released a consultation paper on net neutrality, seeking comments from the industry about the same.

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Later in August, it held an open house discussion on the topic with representatives from the telecom sector, including Internet service providers, consulting firms, policy experts and activists. In the first week of September, it was reported that TRAI’s recommendations on net neutrality would be out in two months.

At the time, TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma had said, “We’re clear that whatever net neutrality recommendations we give, they will be for the Indian context, which is very unique, where the internet is playing a very developmental role. So, whatever rules that we come up with will be in harmony with our developmental objectives and our country’s interests.”

Recently, in the third week of November, the telecom regulator announced that it was considering putting in place guidelines which would allow subscribers to make financial transactions and access other important services faster than the rest of their mobile phones.

So, What Is Net Neutrality And Why Does It Matter?

Net neutrality is a principle that guarantees consumers equal and non-discriminatory access to all Internet services without any discrimination on the basis of tariffs or speed. Backers of net neutrality have demanded against having any traffic management practices, except in cases of emergencies, such as natural disasters.

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However, telecom companies want to be able to manage some traffic on their networks to avoid network congestion without throttling services which compete with their own, thus assuaging the main fear of net neutrality proponents. In addition, telcos also assure that they will disclose any instances of network management to relevant authorities or the public, as required.

It was in February 2016, that TRAI  had finally given its verdict on Facebook’s Free Basics platform, which had stoked the net neutrality debate in India and had issued the ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016’ which said that no company could charge subscribers with discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

Consequently, at that time, TRAI barred discriminatory pricing of data services, including zero-rated plans such as Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero, tackling net neutrality from a tariff perspective. Most recently, during the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS), the Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad proclaimed that the citizens’ right to access the Internet is “non-negotiable”.

According to Prasad, the main idea behind Free Basics was to allow free access to all domains, including education, health and entertainment, provided that the customers entered the World Wide Web through Facebook. He explained, “India is a democracy; we don’t believe in one gate. We believe in multiple gates. Therefore, this gate locking for India will not be accepted and I did not allow it. This stems (from) our commitment that Internet must be accessible to all.”

While net neutrality continues to be a topic of much debate globally, India has taken a major step forward in making Internet free and open to all. The recent recommendations from TRAI will definitely contribute towards formalising a much-needed official policy on the issue of net neutrality.

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