Net neutrality has become a hot button issue, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the content’s source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Supporters of net neutrality worry that powerful service providers could choose to control Internet traffic by funneling data into fast and slow lanes; this thereby would allow the richest companies to pay extra fees to ensure that their online content is accessible through the fast lanes, creating an additional barrier of entry for new online start-ups who could not afford access to such fast lanes.
India is currently debating the merits of net neutrality. However, the Indian population’s access to and use of the Internet provides unique parameters to the discussion. For starters, although India has the third largest number of Internet users, only 19 percent of the Indian population currently has Internet access. In comparison, 87 percent of the U.S. population can access the Internet. On the losing end of India’s digital divide is India’s poor and often rural class, where Internet access is limited, or if available, too expensive for marginal customers. India also lacks the large scale infrastructure necessary for broad fixed-line Internet access. For this reason, mobile platforms are the easiest way to bring Internet access to the population, particularly to the less affluent and rural areas of the country where residents suffer not only from poor broadband infrastructure, but also from the lack of basic access to the electricity needed to power fixed Internet lines.
Companies have implemented “zero-rating” programs that hope to expand Internet access to a larger segment of India’s population. The “Internet.org” project provides free Internet access to specific sites and applications that have partnered with the platform. Neither the site nor the consumers are required to pay data charges for usage that is within the scope of the program. In other approaches, such as Airtel’s “Airtel Zero” platform, data charges are paid for by the sites that participate in the program.
These various zero-rating platforms have been swept into the net neutrality debate, as critics worry that such licensing agreements could price Indian start-ups out of the market. Public opinion has been powerful enough to force Indian partners, such as Flipkart, one of India’s largest e-commerce websites, to walk away from Airtel Zero.
To a large extent, India’s net neutrality debate has paralleled the recent debate in the United States, and Indian net neutrality proponents have adopted their U.S. counterparts’ arguments when criticizing zero-rating projects. However, the disparity between mobile and fixed-line Internet access marks an important difference between the net neutrality debate in India and in the U.S. Due to widespread Internet access in the United States, the domestic net neutrality debate was able to focus largely on the quality of Internet access. In the U.S., the discussion centered on regulations that would ensure equal access to all legal digital content, and promote commercial and non-commercial innovations, particularly by start-ups and small businesses. In a country where Internet access is beyond the reach of so many, the calculus may be very different.
Even if it were the case that some zero-rating programs might create some barriers to market entry for new start-ups, as net neutrality supporters argue, India may need to consider that not all zero-rating programs are likely to create such barriers. Further, India may need to balance any potential loss against the immediate benefit that zero-rating programs can provide, by expanding access to Internet services. These platforms could provide rural areas with mobile access to basic search engines, social platforms, and e-commerce sites. The access could help small business owners and farmers tap into a larger market for their goods, and can bring basic education and information to rural areas. Even outside of the zero-rating context, policymakers in India are crafting new telecom regulations to achieve a greater balance between the benefits of net neutrality with opportunities for more widespread Internet access.