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The Indian government has asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to submit recommendations on net neutrality, in order to finalise its official policy on this controversial issue, reports ET. TRAI’s recommendations along with the report of the telecom department (DoT) committee on net neutrality will form the basis of the government’s final policy.

TRAI Chairman RS Sharma was quoted as stating that TRAI has received a letter from DoT on making on the net neutrality issue and will shortly float a consultation paper in this regard. The government’s move comes as currently, it has no policy on the subject, but is facing  pressure from supporters of a free internet to come out with a broad framework which in clear terms supports an open internet.

Incidentally, this development comes over a month after TRAI said no to Facebook’s Free Basics platform. It issued the ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016’  which said that no company can charge subscribers with discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content. Thus zero-rated plans such as Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero were barred under the new regulation.

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The regulator now plans to define net neutrality and focus on the key concerns, the ability of service providers to slow down or speed up access to websites as well as the issue of blocking and prioritising of data. While TRAI’s order banning differential tariff for data services fell within its jurisdiction, but the issue of net neutrality falls under the purview of DoT.

It is to be noted that TRAI’s consultation paper when floated would override its previous paper on regulating over-the-top (OTT) players that was issued under the chairmanship of Sharma’s predecessor Rahul Khullar. That paper had been widely criticised by net neutrality advocates. Even the internal committee of DoT last year had also recommended banning controversial zero-rating plans of Telcos. However, it had suggested a new law incorporating principles of net neutrality to replace the Indian Telegraph Act and called for “regulatory oversight” on certain OTT applications, such as WhatsApp’s calling service and Skype.

All in all, it had recommended maintaining a balance between ensuring an open Internet and rational use of traffic management by Telcos and Internet service providers (ISPs) for genuine needs.

Net neutrality issue has been a burning topic since last year when Facebook pulled no stops to get its Free Basics platform approved by TRAI. Over the past few months, Facebook resorted to various methods of asking users to vote and advertising campaigns to save Free Basics. In an effort to get people’s support, it spent over INR 300 Cr in media blitzkrieg. Interestingly, a day after TRAI ruled against differential pricing leading to shut down on Free Basics in India, Facebook India’s head Kirthiga Reddy stepped down from her post to move back to the US.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office has been keeping a close watch on the whole issue of an open Internet and has set up a three member ministerial panel. The government has also repeatedly stated that it will adhere to the principle of net neutrality and is committed to a free and fair Internet. Seeking recommendations from TRAI seems to be one of the final steps it is taking towards formalising a much needed official policy on the issue.


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