Net neutrality campaigners have raised the pitch as the telecom regulator seeks public comments on the issue.
They argue any kind of discrimination will scuttle the Internet's growth in the country. Opponents claim technology may make it difficult for the government to stop network management.
A controversy was sparked after Bharti Airtel, the country's largest telecom operator, launched 'Airtel Zero' on Monday that allows companies to offer their applications to Airtel subscribers for free. The maker of the application pays the operator for the customer's free use. "It is wrong for me to have to pay Airtel or Vodafone money to access YouTube, Skype or any site they decide to charge for," Mahesh Murthy, founder of digital marketing agency Pinstorm, wrote in a blog on Wednesday. "What we do with bandwidth must be up to us, not up to some profiteering telecom tycoon," he added. Sachin Bansal, founder of e-commerce company Flipkart.com, on the other hand, tweeted, "When foreign companies do it in India - innovation. Indians do it - violation". Flipkart may have signed up with Airtel's Zero platform.
"Telecom companies are saying zero-rating websites (that are offered free like Facebook or Wikipedia) are cannibalising revenues from customers who used to pay for data earlier. It is also failing to convert non-data paying customers into paying ones, so it is not working for telecom companies," said a member of an Internet think tank who did not wish to be named.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India released a discussion paper on net neutrality in the last week of March and is seeking public comments by April 24 and counterviews by May 8.
Another Internet expert said people paying extra to visit select sites was like higher charges for high definition cable television. If net neutrality was restricted to price, consumers could decide what they wished to pay for, he added.
However, if websites or apps were blocked or telecom operators bumped up internet speed for certain services, the implications for innovation would be wider, he pointed out. "If the government is attempting to make a policy, it has to be as fair as possible," he said.
Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet Society, said ensuring network neutrality might be difficult, but the government could stop censorship and discrimination. "Competition usually resolves these issues. We have competition among telecom service providers and Internet service providers. This must be protected," he added.