As the fight over net neutrality in the U.S. reaches the litigation phase, India’s version of the battle over Internet rules is just heating up. The situation on the subcontinent shares some similarities with its American counterpart: a backlash against a regulator who seems to favor telecommunications companies over Web-based rivals, an activist-led campaign to flood the government with public comments, and even a viral video produced by comedians.
But India’s net neutrality activists are focusing on a practice that U.S. rules barely addressed, and they’ve set themselves against an enemy that’s been pretty quiet on the topic at home: Facebook.
The issue came to the forefront after India’s telecom companies spent months complaining to regulators about unfair competition from Internet companies. Messaging services such as WhatsApp and voice services like Skype compete directly with telecom-provided text messaging and phone services but aren’t subject to the same regulations. Last month the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India launched the formal consideration of Internet rules with the release of a “consultation paper.” Regulators also raised the prospect of implementing some form of net neutrality on the telecoms at the same time.
The initial comment period for the paper ends this week, and activists have used the predictable unpopularity of local telecoms to generate attention. So far, campaigners claim to have sent more than 800,000 letters to the regulatory body.
In the U.S., Internet companies either supported activists or stood aside during the long-running policy debate. In India, however, activists have found a foil in Facebook’s Internet.org project, which launched in the country in February. Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to expand Internet access in developing countries wraps itself in philanthropic language while also clearly pursuing Facebook’s interest in expanding the pool of potential Facebook users. One of the ways it does that is through a concept known as zero-rating, where certain services are provided without charge to Internet subscribers.
Activists say this gives Internet.org participants an unfair advantage over competing services. If Facebook is free but an upstart social network isn’t, people will likely go with the incumbent. The activists have begun targeting companies that cooperate with Facebook, and in the last week several partners have publicly broken away. The Internet.org exodus includes travel site Cleartrip and the Times Group, a news organization.
Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece in an Indian business newspaper last week defending zero-rating. “To give more people access to the Internet, it is useful to offer some services for free. If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all,” he wrote. “Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services, or create fast lanes. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes.”
In the U.S., the rules recently passed by the Federal Communications Commission don’t explicitly address zero-rating, and the agency says it will handle the issue on a case-by-case basis. AT&T and T-Mobile offer zero-rating programs in the U.S. now.
Even among U.S. advocates there seemed to be disagreement about how important it was that Internet rules cover the practice. In India, however, zero-rating has become the major point of contention. In addition to Facebook, local telecom Bharti Airtel has been pilloried for a plan to offer free access to certain apps. The Indian regulatory authority acknowledges in its report that these actions could give a significant advantage to those services that participate in the plans.
Local activists accuse Facebook of abandoning principles it supports when it does business abroad. “The stance that ‘we stand for full net neutrality in the U.S., but we act differently elsewhere’ is problematic,” says Raman Chima of Access, one of the groups pushing for new rules in India.
For its part, Facebook says it supports net neutrality in India—under a definition of the term that deems zero-rating an acceptable practice.That’s a reminder that in every net neutrality debate, a major part of the disagreement is what the phrase even means.
(Corrects sentence listing some companies that have broken ties with Internet.org to exclude Flipkart, which never participated in the program.)