The net can’t be neutral if regulators are biased against voice-over Internet

The Department of Telecommunications’ new report (PDF) on net neutrality is a deceptive piece of work. Drawn up by a committee set up in January 2015, it was perceived as a reaction to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s consultation paper in May on implementing the principles of net neutrality in Indian telecom regulation. While the TRAI document triggered a controversy by appearing ambiguous about its intentions, the DoT report presents half-measures with the aim of creating a level playing field for telecom service providers (TSPs).

What are the more contentious issues in the DoT report?

On the question of regulating domestic VoIP calls made through over-the-top (OTT) services like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, the report appears confused. The committee writes that while app-to-app calls made internationally should be unregulated, local calls ought to be regulated by the issuance and revocation of licenses. This has prompted the Indian telecom industry to ask why the DoT wants to spare international VoIP calls. When you call your sibling in Princeton from an Airtel number in Chennai, the TSP that picks up and relays the call in the New Jersey area takes the bulk of the fee you pay to make the call – not Airtel. Likely because of this arrangement, the DoT is not concerned about regulating international VoIP calls. Of course, acknowledging the need for regulatory balance on the one hand but ignore it on the other lays it open to the charge of  double-standards.

However, given that it wants to regulate domestic VoIP calls in the interest of creating what it thinks is a level playing field within the country, why not protect a level playing field among TSPs abroad as well? Moreover, WhatsApp, Skype and Viber are all foreign companies and data made via their apps could be routed through foreign servers – further lightening the distinction between domestic and international calls.

Another issue is centred on zero-rating, the practice of ISPs routing some traffic through the network at subsidised rates based on its sources. The DoT committee writes, “if government wants to give services free on the internet (like zero rating), it is considered as positive discrimination and not seen as violation of Net Neutrality. Therefore, it should be permitted in public interest. Government can provide zero rated channels to citizens for essential services (public interest zero rating), based on clear public policy and principles and on non-commercial terms.”

Because zero-rated traffic is qualified based on agreements entered into with the TSPs/ISPs, small players who can’t afford it perceive it as ‘negative discrimination’. However, the DoT report retorts that such agreements will be overseen by anti-competitive laws and that their ability to participate in the ecosystem will be protected by those laws. Overall, in fact, the report also encourages passing on the burden of accomplishing zero-rating’s goals, such as increasing access to the Internet among the masses, to solutions like free Wifi and providing vouchers paid for by the government.

Will regulating VoIP be a direct violation of net neutrality?

There is a difference between making licenses the minimum requirement to operate a business and using licenses to regulate a business. The big bullet was going to be whether OTT and OTT-VoIP services would be banned if they didn’t come under a licensing regime. This is no longer going to be the case for OTT-application services (like Facebook), but for OTT-communications services, the DoT committee is resurrecting an argument that has been around for years.

For example, in November 2014, it was at TRAI’s behest that Skype suspended its app-to-phone calling service. One of the demands then – when the debate on net neutrality hadn’t yet kicked off in India – was not to suspend OTTs but to subject them to the same regulatory bindings that applied to TSPs. Vodafone Essar’s T.V. Ramachandran had told NDTV, “We can do a lot more if a level playing field is given to us”.

And within the limitations of net neutrality, one possible way out of the Gordian knot now is to extend restrictions on features like call-switching and do-not-disturb to OTTs as well. This could even out the regulatory imbalance as well as encourage innovation in the sector, but inevitably also impose some costs on WhatsApp that could be transferred to subscribers.

Such a regulatory environment would be similar to the one in the US, where the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t regulate VoIP calls but requires compliance with a set of law enforcement rules, contributions to a fund that pays for “communication services in high-cost areas”, maintenance of call-records, providing local number portability, and providing special services for people with speech or hearing disabilities. Some other countries – like the UK and Italy – don’t regulate VoIP either but allow differential pricing. In fact, should TRAI and DoT agree on using licenses to regulate OTTs’ domestic VoIP services, India will become the first country to do so.

Why is regulation necessary?

Whether any of these should be regulated at all defers to a deeper conflict: the advent of VoIP is a consequence of technology’s natural disruptive capacity that’s so prized by entrepreneurs, while on the other hand it is perceived as an unfair form of arbitrage by those already invested in the sector. For example, a VoIP call costs 12.5 times less than a call made via a TSP on average – while TSPs like Airtel, Vodafone and others have already sunk in Rs.7.5 lakh crore to develop infrastructure that furthers their business in the country.

An intervening regulator has to decide whom to side with, the consumer or the investor, and he is answerable to both (Is this what prompted the DoT’s recommendation to regulate domestic VoIP calls but not text-messages?).

The answer isn’t straightforward from anybody’s perspective. Because of their low costs, TRAI could let VoIP calls remain unregulated and relax the tariff scheme for TSPs/ISPs to compete with the OTTs. On the other hand, TSPs/ISPs incur significant infrastructural costs when expanding into new areas and have to make that up. And finally, while TRAI can regulate local players but not OTTs like Facebook and WhatsApp that are based abroad, the DoT suggests it can regulate VoIP calls through a licensing regime – which can be long-winded and arbitrary.

(With inputs from Anuj Srivas.)

The Wire
July 21, 2015

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.

It's not over yet, let's keep the gears of net neutrality moving

Key takeaways from the fight for net neutrality: the debate is uncritical and intolerant, the government has been vegetative at best, and there are no institutions to keep up the fight

Hindustan Times (edited)
May 1, 2015

By Vasudevan Mukunth & Anuj Srivas

On November 26, 2008, when most of India was getting ready to turn in for the night, those people that turned on their television were in for a rude shock. A group of terrorists had stormed the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels, taking hundreds of guests hostage.

As it turned out, our law enforcement authorities were in for an equally rude shock after they discovered that the gunmen were using BlackBerry devices to communicate; a communication channel that, at the time, the Indian government did not have real-time access to.

Less than a month later after the 26/11 attacks, Parliament passed an amendment bill to the Information Technology Act, 2000 which was primarily aimed at intercepting communications that threatened the security of the State, but also included a few nasty surprises such as the now struck-down Section 66 A.

What was more astonishing, however, was that the amendments were passed without debate or any sort of discussion and, apart from a few sparsely scattered voices, were met with very little outrage.

The Indians for Internet freedom

This is in stark contrast to the groundswell of visible opposition that has risen in response to the TRAI consultation paper on regulation of over-the-top services. A sustained and successful campaign has been waged on Twitter by a group of activists, artists, journalists, lawyers and scholars over the last month, to mobilize public debate and prompt calls for the government to preserve net neutrality.

The rise of this movement, which has seen support from hard-working politicians to Bollywood actors, is a phenomenon that deserves to be celebrated and can only be a positive development for India’s mushrooming online population.  And yet, in its present form, it needs to encourage greater nuance in the general debate while transforming into something that will remain sustainable in the long run.

The surge started in the last week of March and picked up steam around April 11. By April 18 (at the time of writing this), some tweeters had claimed more than 100,000 emails had been sent to TRAI via savetheinternet.in, the lightning-rod website set up to give fist-shakers something to do.

By this time, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had announced that the Department of Telecom would set up a committee to “look into” and ensure the preservation of net neutrality in India, although no specifics were mentioned.

Nonetheless, the movement in question was something that didn’t manifest itself when Section 66 A was drawn up and passed. Of course, it has been eight years since then, and in that time, not only has social media matured into a formidable agent for change, there are more people willing to devote time and speak out.

The spectrum of support

Enmeshed in the movement are also mediapersons and politicians, many hankering for a bite of the mileage an agglomeration of public opinion usually offers. Media establishments such as the Times of India and NDTV had signed up to be a part of Facebook’s internet.org initiative earlier this year. Earlier this month, however, after public outrage, they backed away from the initiative and asserted their commitment to net neutrality instead.

The questions beg to be asked: what did the organisations think they were signing up for, and is their commitment to net neutrality sincere? In the best case scenario, it signals a complete lack of awareness and in the worst, it smacks of opportunism.

And the political class refuses to be left out. The DMK’s MK Stalin, son of party supremo M Karunanidhi, issued a statement saying, “This attempt to increase the profits of the telecom companies by surrendering social gains should be condemned. I request the TRAI to dismiss this proposal and let the internet continue to be a neutral medium which serves our country and community instead of a select few companies.” Was this the first time Stalin has said anything about Internet governance?

At the other end of the spectrum, we have politicians like BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy and Kerala’s Rajeev Chandrasekher who have been able to articulate the reasons behind what has been consistent support. However, what is more important is that the online movement against net neutrality is forcing politicians across the spectrum to understand and speak the language of the Internet. After all, the term “net neutrality” is now part of the conversation at the DMK HQ.

Open up the debate

In Andhra Pradesh, in fact, the debate over net neutrality will be closer home. The local government has an app called AP Speaks that’s been bundled along with Facebook’s internet.org in state circles. It allows citizens and residents of Andhra Pradesh to give advice or feedback to the government on a number of subjects. How does this co-exist with our current conceptualization of net neutrality and zero-rating? Is there any situation by which zero-rating could be useful for India’s low-income Internet population? The debate in its present form concedes no space for such perspectives, treating net neutrality as a monolithic idea.

And by voting for net neutrality once a year and creating committees to vocalize the government’s stand every time a ‘wave’ erupts on Twitter is not going to be of any help if there isn’t also a mechanism to ensure commitments don’t flag. The government has to explicitly define what it means by net neutrality, which parts it intends to safeguard and how. Overall, it must be loyal to the idea of keeping active watch over entry-barriers and impose penalties on attempts at traffic-shaping.

The movement’s skepticism showed best when TRAI’s consultation paper – a document asking what should be done – was interpreted as being suggestive. The TRAI servers were flooded with hundreds of thousands of emails from people concerned about the violation of net neutrality even as it seemed everyone knew the source of ‘evil’ was the telecom companies.

On April 17, the Amazon India homepage sported a banner claiming it fully supported net neutrality and – more important – that TRAI was planning to allow telcos an “extreme violation of net neutrality”. If it was the BJP-led government’s plan to scapegoat TRAI and then project a beneficent entity in the form of a committee constituted by the DoT, which has been hailed as a good thing, it worked splendidly without the government having issued a single unsolicited statement on Internet governance.

On the other hand, its response seems a poisoned reflection of the on-the-ground movement. The people involved are, colloquially speaking, good people, sincere practitioners of their professions. What could give more weight to their ambitions is the presence of an institution or two. So where are they?

Keep moving the gears

In 2012, in the U.S., during the online movement against the proposed implementation of the SOPA and PIPA Acts, social media was at the forefront – but it was also backed up by activist institutions such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the benevolent clout of organizations such as Wikipedia and Reddit.

In India, the social media movement is there. But there were and are no institutions, no agents to cohere the debate, no doors to knock on after the “Save the Net” wave has passed. Already the government is known to be working on a replacement for Section 66 A. Who will call for a fight, or should we just wait and hope AIB will make another video?

The more vocal think-tanks like the Centre for Internet and Society and the Centre for Communication Governance are prohibited from grassroots activism or campaigning/lobbying as part of their charter and conditions attached to their funding.

Nevertheless, this is a great start; something that will hopefully lead to and surpass the Internet freedom ecosystem in the US. What is missing, however, is an institutionalized ecosystem comprising different actors. It is that which keeps the machinery moving even during times of peace, forever on the road to change.

It’s not over yet, let’s keep the gears of net neutrality moving

Key takeaways from the fight for net neutrality: the debate is uncritical and intolerant, the government has been vegetative at best, and there are no institutions to keep up the fight

Hindustan Times (edited)
May 1, 2015

By Vasudevan Mukunth & Anuj Srivas

On November 26, 2008, when most of India was getting ready to turn in for the night, those people that turned on their television were in for a rude shock. A group of terrorists had stormed the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels, taking hundreds of guests hostage.

As it turned out, our law enforcement authorities were in for an equally rude shock after they discovered that the gunmen were using BlackBerry devices to communicate; a communication channel that, at the time, the Indian government did not have real-time access to.

Less than a month later after the 26/11 attacks, Parliament passed an amendment bill to the Information Technology Act, 2000 which was primarily aimed at intercepting communications that threatened the security of the State, but also included a few nasty surprises such as the now struck-down Section 66 A.

What was more astonishing, however, was that the amendments were passed without debate or any sort of discussion and, apart from a few sparsely scattered voices, were met with very little outrage.

The Indians for Internet freedom

This is in stark contrast to the groundswell of visible opposition that has risen in response to the TRAI consultation paper on regulation of over-the-top services. A sustained and successful campaign has been waged on Twitter by a group of activists, artists, journalists, lawyers and scholars over the last month, to mobilize public debate and prompt calls for the government to preserve net neutrality.

The rise of this movement, which has seen support from hard-working politicians to Bollywood actors, is a phenomenon that deserves to be celebrated and can only be a positive development for India’s mushrooming online population.  And yet, in its present form, it needs to encourage greater nuance in the general debate while transforming into something that will remain sustainable in the long run.

The surge started in the last week of March and picked up steam around April 11. By April 18 (at the time of writing this), some tweeters had claimed more than 100,000 emails had been sent to TRAI via savetheinternet.in, the lightning-rod website set up to give fist-shakers something to do.

By this time, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had announced that the Department of Telecom would set up a committee to “look into” and ensure the preservation of net neutrality in India, although no specifics were mentioned.

Nonetheless, the movement in question was something that didn’t manifest itself when Section 66 A was drawn up and passed. Of course, it has been eight years since then, and in that time, not only has social media matured into a formidable agent for change, there are more people willing to devote time and speak out.

The spectrum of support

Enmeshed in the movement are also mediapersons and politicians, many hankering for a bite of the mileage an agglomeration of public opinion usually offers. Media establishments such as the Times of India and NDTV had signed up to be a part of Facebook’s internet.org initiative earlier this year. Earlier this month, however, after public outrage, they backed away from the initiative and asserted their commitment to net neutrality instead.

The questions beg to be asked: what did the organisations think they were signing up for, and is their commitment to net neutrality sincere? In the best case scenario, it signals a complete lack of awareness and in the worst, it smacks of opportunism.

And the political class refuses to be left out. The DMK’s MK Stalin, son of party supremo M Karunanidhi, issued a statement saying, “This attempt to increase the profits of the telecom companies by surrendering social gains should be condemned. I request the TRAI to dismiss this proposal and let the internet continue to be a neutral medium which serves our country and community instead of a select few companies.” Was this the first time Stalin has said anything about Internet governance?

At the other end of the spectrum, we have politicians like BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy and Kerala’s Rajeev Chandrasekher who have been able to articulate the reasons behind what has been consistent support. However, what is more important is that the online movement against net neutrality is forcing politicians across the spectrum to understand and speak the language of the Internet. After all, the term “net neutrality” is now part of the conversation at the DMK HQ.

Open up the debate

In Andhra Pradesh, in fact, the debate over net neutrality will be closer home. The local government has an app called AP Speaks that’s been bundled along with Facebook’s internet.org in state circles. It allows citizens and residents of Andhra Pradesh to give advice or feedback to the government on a number of subjects. How does this co-exist with our current conceptualization of net neutrality and zero-rating? Is there any situation by which zero-rating could be useful for India’s low-income Internet population? The debate in its present form concedes no space for such perspectives, treating net neutrality as a monolithic idea.

And by voting for net neutrality once a year and creating committees to vocalize the government’s stand every time a ‘wave’ erupts on Twitter is not going to be of any help if there isn’t also a mechanism to ensure commitments don’t flag. The government has to explicitly define what it means by net neutrality, which parts it intends to safeguard and how. Overall, it must be loyal to the idea of keeping active watch over entry-barriers and impose penalties on attempts at traffic-shaping.

The movement’s skepticism showed best when TRAI’s consultation paper – a document asking what should be done – was interpreted as being suggestive. The TRAI servers were flooded with hundreds of thousands of emails from people concerned about the violation of net neutrality even as it seemed everyone knew the source of ‘evil’ was the telecom companies.

On April 17, the Amazon India homepage sported a banner claiming it fully supported net neutrality and – more important – that TRAI was planning to allow telcos an “extreme violation of net neutrality”. If it was the BJP-led government’s plan to scapegoat TRAI and then project a beneficent entity in the form of a committee constituted by the DoT, which has been hailed as a good thing, it worked splendidly without the government having issued a single unsolicited statement on Internet governance.

On the other hand, its response seems a poisoned reflection of the on-the-ground movement. The people involved are, colloquially speaking, good people, sincere practitioners of their professions. What could give more weight to their ambitions is the presence of an institution or two. So where are they?

Keep moving the gears

In 2012, in the U.S., during the online movement against the proposed implementation of the SOPA and PIPA Acts, social media was at the forefront – but it was also backed up by activist institutions such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the benevolent clout of organizations such as Wikipedia and Reddit.

In India, the social media movement is there. But there were and are no institutions, no agents to cohere the debate, no doors to knock on after the “Save the Net” wave has passed. Already the government is known to be working on a replacement for Section 66 A. Who will call for a fight, or should we just wait and hope AIB will make another video?

The more vocal think-tanks like the Centre for Internet and Society and the Centre for Communication Governance are prohibited from grassroots activism or campaigning/lobbying as part of their charter and conditions attached to their funding.

Nevertheless, this is a great start; something that will hopefully lead to and surpass the Internet freedom ecosystem in the US. What is missing, however, is an institutionalized ecosystem comprising different actors. It is that which keeps the machinery moving even during times of peace, forever on the road to change.