DoT backs net neutrality but wants end to free domestic Skype, WhatsApp calls

The Wire
July 17, 2015

It’s just good business. Credit: balleyne/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
It’s just good business. Credit: balleyne/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

A Department of Telecommunications committee has released a report on the issue of net neutrality, following the controversial policy consultation paper that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India put out in May. The report falls in life with many of the popular demands that surged on social media following the TRAI paper, and includes this telling line: “The Committee is of the view that the statement of [telecom companies] that they are under financial stress due to the rapidly falling voice revenues and insufficient growth in data revenues, is not borne out by evaluation of financial data.”

At the same time, it also tucks in a potentially controversial suggestion that could rekindle debate: of regulating domestic calls made through VoIP-enabled over-the-top (OTT) services like WhatsApp and Viber through the Telegraph Act, while leaving alone international calls made through the same apps. It remains to be seen how many of the report’s recommendations TRAI will adopt.

One of the more contentious topics in the the TRAI paper was if OTT services like Facebook and WhatsApp, called so because they rely on local Internet service providers to relay data between their applications and users, should be regulated in India. The DoT report states that non-VoIP OTTs, as well as application-based services like Uber and Ola Cabs, won’t be regulated. VoIP stands for voice-over Internet Protocol, the use of an Internet connection to make phone calls.

Strangely, the report marks a distinction between domestic calls made through VoIP OTTs and international VoIP OTTs, and recommends that only the former be regulated. The ostensible reason for this is that the DoT wants to protect the revenues of telecom companies and, possibly, doesn’t want to interfere with the millions of middle-class Indians who keep in touch with their sons and daughters abroad. But no explicit reason for this differentiation has been provided. In fact, as Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society pointed out on Twitter, the DoT’s suggested use of licenses to regulate such VoIP OTTs isn’t a net-neutrality issue in the first place.

Beyond this sore point: the report also examines how – and how not to – examine data packets flowing through the ‘pipes’, or connections between nodes, of the Internet, and expressly rules out the illegal use of deep packet inspection. Deep packet inspection is a technique often used on networks to eavesdrop on data as it passes through a pipe. The document has also been courageous enough to admit that not all zero-rating plans “are controversial or against the net neutrality principles”. Zero-rating is akin to a toll-gate within a pipe which allows data of some forms or originating from certain sources to pass through without a fee while taxing the rest. Such implementations could be useful when providing government services – like railway bookings – for cheap to the rural poor, but at the same time would have to be protected from non-competitive uses by private enterprises.

Thus, the report recommends “the incorporation of a clause in the license conditions of TSP/ISPs that will require the licensee to adhere to the principles and conditions of Net Neutrality specified by guidelines issued by the licensor from time to time”.

Beyond the questions surrounding net neutrality, the report also takes a stand on India’s digital sovereignty, taking cognisance of the fact that “there is a need for a balance to be drawn to retain the country’s ability to protect the privacy of its citizens and data protection without rendering it difficult for business operations”. It goes on to suggest that the TRAI could “identify critical and important areas through public consultations” when the question of hosting data locally – in servers as well as pipes physically located in the country – arises. Now, the ball is decidedly in TRAI’s court, and it would be unfair to say the body isn’t under pressure to implement what appears to be an amenable report from the DoT.