In an especially strong attack against perceived threats to its Internet-based business, the Times of India group has sought regulatory intervention to ensure what is popularly called Net Neutrality, or the concept that internet service providers must charge only from the end consumer.

In other words, the Times of India group wants TRAI to ensure that internet service providers and telecom companies do not take payments from certain websites to give favorable treatment to those websites on their networks.

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Such a situation already exists in India’s cable business, where channels who do not pay cable operators are often simply blocked out by the cable operator and the consumer is not able to watch those channels.

The Times Group, which operates a host of websites under its Times Internet subsidiary, believes that rules should be put in place so that telecom operators and other Internet companies do not block out websites who do not pay money to them as has happened in the cable industry. This will prevent small websites and blogs from reaching their customers without paying money to telecom operators, it warned.

In a letter to the TRAI, the Times Group said there are certain trends in the Indian market in which some operators are already giving favorable treatment to certain websites.

“Given the lack of formal rules, the danger is that ISPs in India will violate the principal of Net Neutrality,” it said in a letter.

“There have already been some incidents where Indian ISPs have ignored net neutrality. This sets a precedent that broadband providers can choose the content you want to access, by making it easier or harder to get that content. On the Net, ISPs can use differential bandwidth caps, speed limits and pricing on broadband consumption.”

In recent months, operators like telecom operators have been pushing the regulator to allow them to charge websites and Internet-based services like WhatsApp. They argue that these services take up bandwidth on their networks and that they must be compensated for the bandwidth used by consumers for services like WhatsApp, Facebook etc..

“Telecom Operators in India are gearing up to push for a regulation to get websites to pay to allow consumers to access them. The telecom industry’s lobbying arm, the Cellular Operators Association of India, has listed “revenue sharing agreements” with telecom operators one of the five items on their wishlist for the new government,” Times Group said.

The debate around net neutrality started in the US where internet service providers started promoting their own websites and services by giving lower rates for accessing them.

“Services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized digital content consumption and given users enormous flexibility, but they are coming under pressure by copycat services developed by cable companies, such as Comcast Xfinity. These services take advantage of owning the cable connection by offering better, unlimited connectivity when using their service, while offering limited or capped connectivity when accessing Hulu or Netflix. This is an anti-competitive move that stifles innovation and competition,” Times Group said.

Other excerpts from Times Group’s submissions follow –

“Net Neutrality is the principle that the internet users should be able to access web content, download or upload files and communicate in methods of their choice without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Net Neutrality means an Internet that enables and protects free speech1 and equal opportunities. This means that Internet service providers should not block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks, and should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication or different speeds for different kinds of content.

“Underlying this, is the principle of whether or not India has enough safeguards to ensure that the ecosystem for content is a healthy and thriving one, and is not abused by distributors or last-mile operators aiming to create anti-competitive practices. This is a very real threat indeed, because while content may be king, distribution is God – and thousands of content owners are at the mercy of a few last mile owners who have become far more powerful than any media conglomerate could ever dream to be.

“It is hence critical that the government and regulators wake up to the fact that the only way to ensure a competitive media landscape with equal opportunities for all content-owners and their customers on Net and Mobile, is to ensure there are enough rules whereby customer connectivity is neutral to the content that rides on it. How net neutrality has shaped the internet : Net neutrality has shaped the internet in two fundamental ways: One, web users are free to connect to whatever website or service they want. ISPs do not bother with what kind of content is flowing from their servers.

“This has allowed the internet to grow into a truly global network and has allowed people to freely express themselves. For example, you can criticize your ISP on a blog post and the ISP will not restrict access to that post for its other subscribers, even though the post may harm its business. But more importantly, net neutrality has enabled a level playing field on the internet. To start a website, you don’t need lot of money or connections. Just host your website and you are good to go. If your service is good, it will find favour with web users.

“Unlike the cable TV where you have to forge alliances with cable connection providers to make sure that your channel reaches viewers, on the internet you don’t have to talk to ISPs to put your website online. This has led to the creation of Google, Facebook, Twitter and countless other services, all of which had very humble beginnings. They started as basic websites with modest resources. But they succeeded because net neutrality allowed web users to access these websites in an easy and unhindered manner. What will happen if there is no net neutrality : If there is no net neutrality, ISPs will have the power (and inclination) to shape internet traffic so that they can derive extra benefit from it.

“For example, several ISPs believe that they should be allowed to charge companies for services like YouTube and Netflix because these services consume more bandwidth compared to a normal website. Basically, these ISPs want a share in the money that YouTube or Netflix make. Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it, will not exist. Instead of free access, there could be “package plans” for consumers.

“For example, if you pay Rs 500, you will only be able to access websites based in India. To access international websites, you may have to pay more. Or there could be different connection speeds for different types of content, depending on how much you are paying for the service and what “add-on package” you have bought. This would clearly be a discriminatory practice between different websites and different kinds of content –and would men abuse of near-monopolistic powers of ISPs. Lack of net neutrality, would also spell doom for innovation on the web.

“It is possible that ISPs will charge web companies to enable faster access to their websites. Those who don’t pay, may see that their websites opening slowly. This means bigger companies like Google would be able to pay more to make access to Youtube or Google+ faster for web users but a startup that wants to create a different and better video hosting site, may not be able to do that and lose its business. Instead of an open and free internet, without net neutrality we are likely to get a web that has silos in it and to enter each silo, you will have to pay some “tax” to ISPs.

“The bottom line is that lack of net neutrality is an anti-consumer practice that will stifle competition and innovation in the digital economy, leaving power in the hands of telecom operators and broadband providers, rather than the thousands of emerging entrepreneurs in India. How Internet Neutrality may be jeopardized by ISPs, Telecom providers or other players in collusion: The case of Net and Mobile ISPs or Telecom players offering internet may try to get Internet companies to pay tolls and threaten to block or delay them if they don’t. They may do exclusive deals or other arrangements which may result in Internet blackouts or smaller websites being caught in the crossfire –, or websites, tweets, emails and texts may be mysteriously delayed or dropped, Videos would load slowly, if at all or the websites may end up working fine one minute, and time out another.

“More dangerously, this would enable a company to slow down its competitors or block political opinions it disagrees with. ISP would claim it is not their fault, and users would have no idea whom to blame –especially as there are currently no protections for Internet users. Further there is no competition in broadband, and even if there is, all ISPs may end up playing this game. On the Net, ISPs can use differential bandwidth caps, speed limits and pricing on broadband consumption. But on mobile, telecom operators can offer further favouritism towards preferred services, with additional benefits like selective billing integration and marketing/promotion.

“And since bandwidth on mobile is more limited than over broadband, restrictions or favouritism in bandwidth consumption offer telecom operators an even stronger, anti-competitive advantage. Worse, it sets a precedent that broadband providers can choose the content you want to access, by making it easier or harder to get that content. Further if freed from any legal restraints, ISPs can monitor everything users do and say online — and sell the information to the highest bidder. ISPs will have something that companies like Facebook and Google don’t: direct control over users’ connections to the Internet and the devices user use to connect to it. What is at stake is innovation and creativity, market competition, information availability and freedom of expression –and it is essential to protect thews ehard won freedoms only via Net Neutrality. International Scenario: Net neutrality has become a very heated issue in US and Europe, with significant momentum across civic groups, regulators and governments….

“While the internet only has 50-60 million users, its users can access vast amounts of content even as industries like e- commerce and travel have blossomed, creating economic value and real utility to consumers. Compare it to the MVAS world, where despite over 900 million users, the most common consumer sentiment is that they are being unfairly billed for irrelevant services. So what is the difference? On the internet, anyone can start a company and compete fairly for the consumers’ attention, spurring innovation and value. But in the mobile VAS world, only five major telecom operators control the services and choose the MVAS companies they want to patronize –even as they pay them rock bottom rates in revenue shares. The result is much less competition, and operators selling the same services (like caller ringback tones) increasingly aggressively to their customers, but with little or no innovation…

“As connectivity grows across the internet and mobiles, it is crucial that the government allows the same flourishing, open liberal ecosystem that has currently existed on the Web to continue across devices. India’s huge population and strong technical talent have the potential for global scale entrepreneurship and innovation, and can create a new dynamic India in the way IT had done in the 1990s. But it requires an infrastructure and atmosphere that is not controlled by last-mile connectivity providers who abuse their dominance.

“One should not confuse this with cross-media ownership –which is a non-issue, prompted by political motivations that fear a strong media. The real issue is whether or not we have enough safeguards to ensure that the ecosystem for content is a healthy and thriving one, and is not abused by distributors or last-mile operators aiming to create anti-competitive practices by expanding into content. This is a very real threat indeed, because while content may be king, distribution is God – and the thousands of content owners are at the mercy of a few last mile owners who have become far more powerful than any media conglomerate could ever be.

“It is high time, then, that the government and regulators wake up to the fact that the only way to ensure a competitive media landscape with equal voice for all content, is to ensure there are enough rules whereby customer connectivity is neutral to the content that rides on it. Survival of Net Neutrality : Net neutrality was earlier being implemented as a sort of a gentlemen’s agreement. It has survived so far because few people realized the potential of internet when it took off around 30 years ago. But now when the internet is not just an integral part of the society but an incredibly powerful –and disruptive— force as well,, ISPs across the world are trying to get the power to shape and control the traffic.

“But there are ways to keep net neutrality alive. Consumers should demand that ISPs continue their hands-off approach from the internet traffic. If consumers see a violation of net neutrality, they ought to take a proactive approach and register their displeasure with the ISP. They should also reward ISPs that uphold the net neutrality. At the same time, it is crucial to ensure that TRAI comes out with a set of clear and precise rules that protect the net neutrality.

“‘We have started seeing ISPs trying to take control of the traffic that flows from their servers but TRAI can regulate them. It can keep the internet open and consumer-friendly by forming rules that protect net neutrality. These are early days so it is easy to do. If ISPs manage to change the system, it may become too late,’ Sunil Abraham, director of Centre for internet and Society in Bangalore says.

“Conclusion: Internet has thrived because of its freedom of competition and ability for anyone with an internet connection to change the world. It is necessary to have safeguards – laws and checks and balances on the last mile of the consumer – to ensure last mile neutrality, which has now become the global movement across mediums. Taking advantage of last mile ownership throttles such innovation and competition.”

RTN’S TAKE

We believe telecom operators and internet service providers should be allowed to offer ‘special offerings’ such as ‘Free Facebook’ by tying up with Facebook if companies like Facebook want to pay the internet access charges on behalf of the consumer.

However, such services should not be marketed as ‘Internet’ or ‘Web Access’ and must be clearly marketed as ‘Facebook Access’ or ‘Walled Garden Access’. Conversely, any consumer who pays for ‘Internet’ access should get neutral and unmanipulated access to all websites on an equal footing. There should be no behind-the-scenes tinkering with the traffic in such cases.

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