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TRAI ruling: green flag to Net Neutralists

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By Prasanto K Roy

On Monday afternoon, India’s telecom regulator finally put to rest the fiery net neutrality debate in India, by ruling against zero rating and differential tariffs.

Zero rating lets Airtel users use Facebook, for instance, free of data levies, while charging for access to other services or websites.

This violates net neutrality, which says there should be no differential pricing — free data for one service, but priced for another — based on the content or websites.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has now forbidden such “discriminatory pricing” by whatever name it may be called.

The watchdog’s ruling is clear and sharp, and a blow to Facebook’s high-stakes Free Basics platform, born as Internet.org, as well as to Airtel Zero and other zero-rating platforms tried out, or planned, by telcos.

The year-long battle between the heavyweights, including telecom giants and Facebook, and a bunch of volunteers under the SaveTheInternet.in banner, was fiery, and seemingly unequal.

Facebook ploughed in an estimated Rs.300 crore into its three-month campaign defending Free Basics. Against it, though, the lone volunteer-activists gradually managed to drum up a great deal of public support.

A spokesman said Facebook was “disappointed with the outcome, but we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings”.

Expectedly, the activists were ecstatic.

“This is a historic outcome,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a co-founder of the SaveTheInternet.in movement.

“For the first time, India leads where the US and Europe will follow. Many thanks to TRAI chairman R.S. Sharma for backing such an important ruling as his first major act in office.”

The TRAI ruling got widespread applause, including from tech association Nasscom, which had given a submission supporting net neutrality. Its Internet council chairman Sanjeev Bikhchandani said the ruling would “help address apprehensions of young startups fearing the lack of a level playing field.”

Entrepreneur Arvind Jha of TiE said the collective power of 7,000 startups (whose founders had written to the PMO supporting Net Neutrality) and a dedicated team of volunteers has won over Facebook’s ad blitzkrieg running into hundreds of crores of rupees.

So have David and the good guys vanquished Goliath, ending the battle?

The reality may be more nuanced than that. A battle much bigger than activists versus Facebook is up ahead: Providing Internet access to nearly a billion Indians who are offline, or nominally online, today.

First, the nuances.

Facebook is responsible for a great deal of the Internet penetration in India. Of the 300 million mobile users who make up over 90 percent of India’s internet base, 56 percent use WhatsApp daily, and 51 percent use Facebook, according to a TNS survey released last October.

So, at least, two out of every three Internet users in India use mobile data, purely to use one or the other of Facebook’s apps, including WhatsApp. It would be great to find a net-neutral way to let users access the apps or sites they need to (which may include WhatsApp or Facebook), free, or cheaply.

The Net neutrality movement, and now TRAI, has shot down Free Basics, which would have got Facebook and a few select apps free of data charges to subscribers of one telco (Reliance Communications).

But, TRAI hasn’t yet suggested what alternatives could be used to provide cheap or free Internet access to the hundreds of millions of mobile users who are unable or unwilling to pay for mobile data.

And no! They don’t have access to even wireline broadband.

The watchdog did ask that question in its consultation paper. So we’re all hoping it will yet come up with some workable ideas.

There are several options as well.

For instance, letting the telecom companies offer a certain amount of free data for all, or using apps like Gigato which allow sponsors to top-up data, free, for prepaid users of specific apps: that recharged data can then be used for accessing any website or app.

Then there’s Digital India, which aims to put Wi-Fi into towns and villages, letting smartphone users access the internet free or cheaply.

Former journalist Pierre Fitter puts it well: “Good that all Web content will be treated as equal. Now comes the important bit: making sure everyone can access the Internet.” (IANS)

(Prasanto K. Roy is a senior technology journalist)

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Facebook Denies Reports About Marc Zuckerburg’s Indifference Towards Publishers

Facebook said it is also working with publishers across the US and Europe to test support for subscriptions in "Instant Articles".

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Facebook refutes report 'Zuckerberg doesn't care about publishers'. Pixabay

Facebook has denied a media report that cited one of its senior executives as saying that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about publishers.

The Australian on Monday reported that in a meeting with Australian media executives, Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships Campbell Brown said: “Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about publishers but is giving me a lot of leeway and concessions to make these changes”.

Brown reportedly said that publishers who choose not to work with Facebook will wind up in a dying business.

“Facebook said the remarks were inaccurate and taken out of context,” Fortune reported.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, May 23, 2018. VOA
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. VOA

The Australian claimed the story was based on information from five people present at the meeting with Brown who requested anonymity.

Earlier in August, Facebook announced to invest an additional $4.5 million towards helping the publishing industry globally.

The social media giant, that reported more than $5 billion in profit in the second quarter this year, said it will give $3.5 million towards “Facebook Membership Accelerator”, a three-month pilot programme designed to help publishers with membership models.

“We are going to continue to coach the group of metro news publishers from the pilot programme through the end of this year, and we will reconvene with them in 2019 to focus on subscriber retention,” Brown said in a blog post.

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Facebook said it is also working with publishers across the US and Europe.(IANS)

Facebook also announced to contribute $1 million to the 2018 “NewsMatch” campaign which matches individual donations to more than 100 non-profit newsrooms around the country.

Also Read: Slow Disclosure of Tesla Raising Governance, Social Media Concerns

Facebook said it is also working with publishers across the US and Europe to test support for subscriptions in “Instant Articles”.

“Moving forward, we’ll also be exploring ways to support emerging models like membership directly on Facebook,” said Brown. (IANS)