India Needs to ‘Breathe’ Neutral Internet


By Zia Askari

This article is first published at and can be accessed here

Net Neutrality is just like breathing fresh air in the world of Internet access. Any idea to snatch freedom of Internet access will be devastating to the very spirit of Internet fabric. The below verse by a popular poet, describes best the present situation and hence the debate around Net Neutrality.

Saans lena bhi ab dushwaar hua

Sukh ka mousam khiyaal-o-khaam hua

It all started with Airtel’s introduction of its so-called unique marketing platform ‘Airtel Zero’ on April 6th, 2015 – this is Airtel’s way to make Internet access special for special and privileged companies who would pay Airtel for ensuring a faster hassle-free internet experience for their end customers.


This is the genesis of Non-Neutral Internet – where organizations can come forward to spend on purchasing super access plans for their customers while others will not be able to experience the Internet, as freely as it is ought to be.

Internet, by its birth and conception represents freedom – to access information, whenever a user wants. By its own definition, the free spirit of Internet cannot be controlled by any telecom operator or any organization. So any blemish on this free spirit of Internet is seen as breaking the neutral nature of Internet access.

Let us for once, imagine a world where internet is not neutral, then the whole idea of information access will drive profitability and prosperity in the hands of a few those who will pay operators and ISPs for better internet access. Innovation will be killed, before even getting born as start-ups will not be able to reach out to their potential customers as they would in a neutral Internet regime.

This could be the most dangerous situation for a democratic nation like India and that is why the idea of having biased internet has backfired for Airtel as well as (it is the only company which was about to sign up for Airtel Zero, but backed off in last minute).

Ironically, Airtel while announcing Airtel Zero – billed it as a ‘win-win platform for customers and marketers. However, it has now become clear that such platforms will take us towards a monopolistic Internet era where, big organizations will pay to internet service providers for pushing their content – subsiding the freedom of internet access for all.

Most importantly, this will also hurt pretty badly the idea of ‘digital enablement of India’ because of the fact that Internet becomes the large platform on which digital enablement is happening and any obstruction to Internet access will thwart the idea of freedom itself.

How will ‘Airtel Zero’ work?

  1. Mobile app makers register with ‘Airtel Zero’ to give customers toll-free access to their apps (this is where Internet neutrality is being breached when a particular organization is able to drive unrestricted access, while others cannot)
  2. Airtel informs customers about these toll-free apps
  3. Customers download and access these apps at zero data charges – and enjoy their favorite online tasks (e.g. entertainment, shopping) for free – even at zero mobile balance.

This is what Airtel mentioned as part of the launch of Airtel Zero.

“We are excited to launch ‘Airtel Zero’ as an open and non-discriminatory marketing platform for all developers in India – irrespective of the size of their business. We believe that this platform is consistent with India’s vital Digital Inclusion agenda and also contributes to the country’s incredible ‘Make in India’ vision”, said Srini Gopalan, Director – Consumer Business, Bharti Airtel (India).

Close on the heels of this controversy around breach of net neutrality, Airtel issued a statement saying –  

“Airtel fully supports the concept of Net Neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform – Airtel Zero. It is a not a tariff proposition but is an open marketing platform that:

  1. Allows any application or content provider to offer their service on a toll free basis to their customers who are on our network.
  2. Such customers whether on a data pack or not will therefore be able to access these toll free services free of charge.
  3. No site whether on the toll free platform or not under any circumstances is blocked, throttled or provided any form of preferential access.
  4. The toll free platform is open to all content providers on a completely non discriminatory basis and operates on the same principle as 1-800 toll free voice services. “

Interestingly, since the first reports came out about Flipkart joining Airtel Zero, internet users reacted strongly, and the backlash was so powerful that it has  prompted the Flipkart app being given one-star ratings on app stores. And as a result, Flipkart soon rolled back on its decision to join Airtel Zero.

Flipkart Rolled Back from Embracing Airtel Zero

Amid a massive public campaign to support net neutrality in India, online retail giant Flipkart has announced that it will not be a part of the new Airtel platform that was attacked for allowing users to access partner apps without any charges for data.

Withdrawing itself from the Airtel Zero deal, India’s mega e-commerce site was quick to issue a statement:

We at Flipkart have always strongly believed in the concept of net neutrality, for we exist because of the Internet. Over the past few days, there has been a great amount of debate, both internally and externally, on the topic of zero rating, and we have a deeper understanding of the implications. Based on this, we have decided on the following:

We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero

We will be committing ourselves to the larger cause of Net Neutrality in India. We will be internally discussing over the next few days, the details of actions we will take to support the cause

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.

COAI Pledges Support for Equal Net

­­The Cellular Operators Association of India has come forward and reaffirmed its support to Net Neutrality and made a strong pitch for ‘Net Equality’ that will enable access to Internet for a Billion Indians as part of the Government’s Digital India vision.

The Association urged all stakeholders to have a comprehensive and informed debate on the subject of Net Neutrality keeping in mind the requirements of India and its citizens. An important and complex subject such as this, which is still being debated in many countries, which has taken years to conclude in many other countries and which is the subject of litigation in some, should not be left to the opinion of a few.

Net Neutrality Plea in Lok Sabha

As part of the ongoing campaign to ensure freedom of access for Internet – a strong plea was made in the Lok Sabha for ensuring net neutrality with demands that the recent consultation paper brought out by India’s telecoms watchdog – the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) should be relooked and at the same time attempts to disrupt net neutrality by some telecom service providers be not allowed at all.

Moving Ahead

Moving forward, as a country with more than a billion population, India holds immense potential towards becoming a global hub for innovation and drive digital enablement of masses and organisations. Free and unrestricted access to Internet will play a pivotal role in moving forward in this journey.

Hence, the country must put in place stringent mechanism/regulations to ensure that such incidents of playing with the freedom of Internet never occur in the future.

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