A consultation paper issued by the TRAI has in recent weeks triggered a misguided campaign to “Save the Internet”. The hype around “net neutrality” has been such that standup comics to 24x7 TV studio talking-heads have hopped on to the bandwagon with little understanding of the underlying issues. The TRAI consultation paper on “net neutrality” and OTT (over the top) apps no doubt has several problems with the way it was written. But before we get to that it is important to bust some myths.
The internet protocol stack is not a “religion”. There is nothing “inviolable” about it. We have adapted and evolved the internet in ways it was never meant to be nor originally conceived. The original internet as it was first designed no longer exists in the public realm. What we experience today as the internet is the result of a continuous process of creative destruction over the decades with new innovative applications, architectures and business models overcoming the inherent limitations of the protocol stack.
The internet in the 1990s to millions of Americans was the walled-garden of AOL, Compuserve and others. That internet was disrupted with emergence of the graphical world wide web, browsers like Netscape and portals like Yahoo. Google, the ultimate disrupter of them all, changed the internet unrecognisably in the early 2000s. The mobile internet of the 2000s to millions across the developed world was a mish-mash of walled-gardens of telcos and closed application environments of then dominant handset manufacturers like Nokia and Motorola. This was disrupted by Blackberry through the 2000s with its own closed architecture but optimal experience for e-mail. Apple did to the mobile internet what Google did to the fixed internet with the ultimate disruption of our lifetime – the iPhone OS App ecosystem and the full screen touch experience.
Apple’s iOS ecosystem is anything but “neutral”. It blocks Flash, it plays by its own rules on what apps come bundled and what don’t. We don’t really care about how much app developers pay Apple to be listed on the App Store. Nor do we care about which apps are promoted by Apple. All we care about as consumers is the experience as it ought to be.
The “net neutrality” debate in the United States has a specific context and a history to it which does not exist in India. It is a debate in the United States that is far from fully settled. The United States telecom regulator issued “net neutrality” diktats with a wafer thin majority and several caveats on what is referred to as “zero rating” to be considered on a case by case basis within the US context. We should also note that the US has a very mature regulatory regime. There is no telecom ministry nor is the federal government a telecom service provider.
Let us now switch to the Indian context and “net neutrality”. What does it say of the maturity of our regulatory environment and our public debate that we hail the DoT and the Competition Commission both simultaneously “looking into net neutrality” even as the regulator (TRAI) is holding a consultation on the matter ? Our faith in the regulator is so poor that we don’t even bat an eyelid on overlapping jurisdictions across different layers of Government. Nor do we ask why the government in India is playing both policy maker and service provider with a telecom ministry and BSNL.
We have a long way to go in maturing our telecom regulatory regime forcing greater clarity on a limited role for government. Our recent history with licensing and scandals barely inspires confidence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a tall goal for all of us in realizing the vision of a “Digital India”. This vision requires bringing access to hundreds of millions of Indians who have never touched a keyboard and will never own a desktop computer. To these hundreds of millions the mobile phone has emerged as the single greatest means of empowerment. Our priority should be to ensure affordable access to data and information to these hundreds of millions.
The cosmo-urban elite is betraying a mindset of entitlement in wanting the government to regulate innovative business models that may evolve between the service providers like Airtel and the application providers like Flipkart, WhatsApp and Skype. It would be a shame if a vocal minority among the cosmo-urban elite skews the public debate on “net neutrality” away from the priorities of the silent majority that will make up “Digital India”. From Facebook’s Internet.Org to Airtel Zero, let market dynamics determine which business innovation will get these hundreds of millions the kind of access they can afford.
Let me come back to the TRAI’s consultation paper on OTT apps and net neutrality which triggered this public debate. There is a genuine concern in the framing of the consultation that suggests licensing of OTT apps. This is a regressive idea. We don’t need a digital license raj. It would run counter to PM’s Vision of Digital India and his commitment to “ease of doing business”. India should emerge as an innovation hub for digital start-ups and no digital start-up should be forced to leave India. Our start-ups too should discard the mindset of protectionism and learn from Google which in the early 2000s disrupted giants like AOL without the need for any government enforced “net neutrality”.
Ultimately, for digital innovation to thrive in India, the service providers and the application start-ups should learn to co-exist with mutually beneficial business models. The Apple ecosystem is perhaps the best example of how innovative start-ups may thrive within a dominant platform that is anything but neutral.
In conclusion, let me just say that net neutrality is not a priority for Digital India. The internet in India is in no grave danger of dying. It does not need to be saved. It needs to evolve in innovative ways for the hundreds of millions to be able to access it in the manner they see fit and at a cost they can afford. Market innovation and not government intervention is the best means to ensure a Digital India that reaches those hundreds of millions.
Shashi Shekhar is CEO of Niti Digital