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Net neutrality debate raises passions

News, 15 April 2015

NEW DELHI: The future of internet access and usage in India has become a topic for heated debate in recent days, with activists issuing calls to "save the internet" following a decision by the regulator to explore whether telecom firms should be permitted to charge different rates for different uses of internet data.

The Telecom Authority of India (TRAI) is reported to be receiving 10,000 emails a minute in support of the concept of net neutrality.

A further twist has been the launch by the country's largest telco, Bharti Airtel, of Airtel Zero, a platform where companies can let users browse their sites or use their apps for free by paying for consumers' data charges.

Campaigners argued that this would play into the hands of bigger businesses which could afford to carry that cost and restrict the opportunities of startups and innovators so leading to the slowing of the growth of ecommerce.

One major ecommerce business has already pulled out of the platform: Flipkart had been in discussions about joining but, facing a backlash from consumers, announced it was "walking away" from the talks and committing itself to "the larger cause of net neutrality in India".

In a statement, the firm said: "We will be working towards ensuring that the spirit of net neutrality is upheld and applied equally to all companies in India irrespective of the size or the service being offered and there is absolutely no discrimination whatsoever."

In an argument that has become very polarised, some commentators have sought to introduce a more nuanced discussion. Live Mint, for example, pointed out that "India's debate on net neutrality is in danger of confusing anti-competitive practices with legitimate price discrimination".

Thus, there is a difference between charging more for services that use more bandwidth and allowing a business to pay fees to gain an advantage over its rivals.

At the other end of the spectrum from the campaigners bombarding TRAI with emails are those who view a free market as the best way of enabling innovation and ensuring that as many Indians as possible can access the internet.

Data sourced from Business Standard, Live Mint, Forbes; additional content by Warc staff