Flipkart pulls out of Airtel Zero, bats for net neutrality

Several other online firms, however, not ready to walk away from the platform

Itika Sharma PunitDigbijay Mishra Bengaluru/ New Delhi
Net neutrality campaigners scored their first victory on Tuesday when e-commerce major Flipkart pulled out of discussions with the Bharti group for joining Airtel Zero.

Flipkart’s change in stand followed widespread outrage in the internet community, akin to what the Bengaluru-based company had faced after its Bigbillionday sale fiasco last year.

Feelers the government had sent out that it was in favour of net neutrality could have influenced Flipkart’s decision, analysts said.

Several other online players are, however, not ready to walk away from deals they might derive from Airtel Zero. These smaller retailers feel the initiative does not go against net neutrality and will consider joining the platform.

Launched earlier this month, Airtel Zero is an open marketing platform where mobile application makers can register to provide customers free access to their apps.

“Airtel Zero is a different concept,” said Suchi Mukherjee, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of mid-sized lifestyle and fashion e-tailer, LimeRoad. “As long as you are not throttling anyone else’s speed, there is no threat to net neutrality there. Airtel Zero is perhaps the same as offering a discount coupon to your users.”

Experts said while large companies might be able to afford paying telecom service providers, smaller players would stand to lose. ‘’They will not be able to afford the expense. This will move price-sensitive buyers away from smaller portals,’’ a consultant said.

Saurabh Kochar, Foodpanda India CEO and co-founder of Printvenue, said, “I do not think there is a need for any such platform, as it will create discrimination.”

The principle states internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source
What is Airtel Zero?
It is an open marketing platform that will allow customers to access mobile applications at zero data charges. Mobile app makers can register with the platform to give customers toll-free access to their apps

Does Airtel Zero affect net neutrality?
While Airtel Zero does not offer better speed for an app over another, it will be beneficial for large companies that can afford to partner the telecom service provider and attract price-sensitive users

What is Airtel’s defence?
Airtel says the offering is open and non-discriminatory in terms of speed or price between players

What do stakeholders say?
Technology start-ups and their investors say they are at a disadvantage in the wake of large firms such as Airtel, Reliance Communications and Facebook coming out with schemes that restrict free internet access to select platforms

“We are committed to net neutrality in the country and believe all companies, independent of size, should have equal access to the available network. Eventually, it should be left to the consumer to choose what they intend to browse,’’ Jabong’s co-founder Praveen Sinha said.

Following a backlash over co-founder and CEO Sachin Bansal’s support for Airtel Zero on social media, Flipkart on Tuesday said it had not signed up for the platform. “We believe in the concept of net neutrality, for we exist because of the internet,” a company spokesperson said. Earlier, Bansal had tweeted in support of the Airtel platform.

“We will be committing ourselves to the larger cause of net neutrality in India,” Flipkart said in the statement. “We will be discussing over the next few days the details of actions we will take to support the cause.”

Flipkart’s rival, Snapdeal, also said the company had no plans to join Airtel Zero, “Especially given the regulatory framework is unclear”.

The other large player in the segment, Amazon India, did not comment on Airtel Zero.

However, it said it would follow for India its global policy of “supporting net neutrality — the fundamental openness of internet — which has been so beneficial to consumers and innovation.”

Airtel, on its part, maintained the company supported net neutrality. ‘’There have been some misconceptions about our toll-free data platform Airtel Zero,’’ a company spokesperson said. On Flipkart’s stand, he said Airtel Zero was not a tariff proposition. ‘’It is merely an open platform for content providers for offering toll-free data services,” he added.

First Published: Apr 15 2015 | 12:40 PM IST

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