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Maximum government, death of digital if TRAI has its way

Just as the internet spread across the world at its own developmental rate, it is important to allow it to spread across India at its own developmental rate.

Anupam Saraph  Pune | 4th Apr 2015

he internet is a network of networks linking billions of devices, including all your computers and mobile phones to those of others across the world. Tim Berners Lee, the man who invented the worldwide web believes that the value of the internet is in the ability of anyone to communicate with anyone using any media and any content.

To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the internet is over-the-top (OTT) communications, OTT media, e-commerce, internet cloud services, social media and web content. To the TRAI, you can slice up these into individual parcels and licence and regulate them, while still having an alive, vibrant and valuable internet. According to TRAI, doing so would be in the public interest, and an example of "minimum government". If they were to have their way they will slice up the internet by content and look at ways they can licence and regulate it. In a consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services released on 27 March 2014, the TRAI, a body responsible to uphold public interest, argues that overwhelming content is burdening the private telecom service providers (TSP), who provide you access to the internet on your mobile phone. TRAI also argues that OTT applications and services are not subject to the same licensing that the TSPs are subject to.

PROTECTING PRIVATE INTERESTS

This strange love for the TSPs makes one wonder who the TRAI serves. No TSP provides access to the internet out of charity. If the recent spectrum auctions are any indication, TSPs continue to see huge value in remaining in the business as TSPs. No TSP provides internet access without having subscribers pay for plans that are carefully tailored to make money for the TSP. In fact, if the revenue graphs are any indication, TSP revenues through the internet have been rapidly growing over the last several quarters.

Comparing OTT applications and services with TSP licensing is much the same as saying teachers and colleges should have the same business mode. Or theatres and actors or even movie producers should have the same business model and licensing.

The internet has become the nervous system of the global economy. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through your body, it will malfunction, be diseased and die. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through the internet, it will cause malfunction, disease and death of the global economy.

The burdens and costs of each business model are different as are the rewards. To impose the same licensing and regulatory requirements and costs across different business models is absurd, if not foolish. You do not feed humans with fertilizer and spray pesticides on them. You do not license plants to photosynthesise and grow, or regulate their plantations. You cannot impose the same restrictions on actors or musicians that you do on theatres.

The growth of each of these businesses and the industries they are a part of has been driven by their business models. It has also been enhanced or restricted by the ability or failure to forge symbiotic relationships between different business models that do not impose censorship, throttle or restrict each other.

VALUE OF INTERNET

The internet industry has grown precisely because it has remained agnostic to the media and content transported across the network. This unique property of the internet was first described by Prof Tim Wu as "net neutrality". This enabled a symbiotic relationship between those who produced content and media with those who merely transmitted it. Had the internet chosen to censor, throttle or restrict the media or content transmitted through it, it would not have grown to the reach it has today. Had the content and media providers restricted their content or media transmissions through only a chosen few TSPs or ISPs, the internet would not have grown to what it is today. It would not have impacted the global economy in the phenomenal ways it has.

The internet has become the nervous system of the global economy. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through your body, it will malfunction, be diseased and die. If you censor, throttle or restrict signals passing through the internet, it will cause malfunction, disease and death of the global economy.

Spreading the benefits of the internet to rural India is often used to justify providing a collection of websites "free". Proponents of this approach forget that they are not providing the internet. They are providing a few websites of their choosing and interests. If you recognise that the internet is a nervous system, this is a defective nervous system, one that is censored, throttled and restricted, and therefore will cause malfunction, disease and death of the economy it claims to enable.

Just as the internet spread across the world at its own developmental rate, it is important to allow it to spread across the country at its own developmental rate. The infrastructure is of no use with the value stripped away. It is important to provide and protect the value, not the infrastructure without the value. It is important for the TRAI and the government to ensure public interest, not private interests.

PUBLIC INTEREST, MINIMUM GOVERNMENT BURIED?

Instead of asking what public interest needs to be protected and how, the TRAI consultation paper asks how to regulate that which should be left alone.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised minimum government and digital access to all. The TRAI paper foretells a picture of maximum government and the death of the digital. It fails in protecting public interest as also the interests of the telecom industry while attempting to protect the interests of the TSPs by slicing the internet into parts and attempting to regulate and license it. Perhaps Prime Minister Modi will himself step in to ensure the vision he promised to the country is not destroyed by TRAI.

The consultation paper asks for your comments to be emailed to TRAI by 24 April and counter comments by 8 May to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . I wonder why they never ask what public interest needs to be protected. Do ask them that, if you care about the internet as your nervous system in a global economy.

Anupam Saraph is a professor and future designer who was governance and IT advisor to former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and part of the Global Agenda Councils of the World Economic Forum

 
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