The edited version of this was published in the op-ed section of The Hindu on Monday. Presented below is the unedited version. Also, since the public consultation process for net neutrality in Europe is underway, do visit the Save The Internet campaign to upload your comments.
The echoes of millions of mails sent in an unexpectedly-successful campaign in India seem to have reached European shores.
As the European Union embarks on a public consultation process on “Net Neutrality”, the response of Indian citizens to Zero-rated apps – the concept of certain applications (Facebook’s Internet.org, for instance) being provided free to customers – has emerged as one of the talking points, and even a rallying point, for a similar campaign here.
Starting June, the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) will launch a public consultation to interpret the new net neutrality law passed in October 2015. Activists have called the current law “ambiguous law” as there were “crucial loopholes” that could undermine the concept of a level-playing field online. “The law is neither with the telecom companies nor with activists. It has been over-complicated and could be interpreted either way,” says Thomas Lohninger, an activist part of SaveTheInternet.eu campaign which has nearly 22 digital rights organisations across Europe under its ambit.
Corporate response so far
The ambiguity of the existing law has already spurred telecom companies to offer special services. In April, Swedish state-owned telecom company, Telia, started offering zero-rating with Facebook services. In reaction, the heads of major Swedish media issued an open letter that condemns the agreement. “We’ll suffer from a loss of diversity in media, and we’ll risk losing the right to publish ourselves…Many users will surely jump at the offer. It may seem like a bargain in the beginning. But if the price is that our public discourse is regulated from Menlo Park, California, then that price is far, far too high,” the letter states.
In Germany, the partially-state-owned Deutche Telekom stirred up a storm when, days after the EU passed the law, its CEO Timotheus Höttges said: “Start-ups need special services more than anyone (else)…By our reckoning, they would pay a couple of percent (of their revenue) for this.”
Statements such as these make the process of public consultation “critical” to ensure an implementable and fair set of guidelines, says Mr. Lohninger.
Surprisingly, though internet penetration in Europe is at nearly 80 per cent (around 35 percentage points above the world average), the drafting of the legislation had begun only a couple of years ago. The process culminates in a public consultation to be held between June 6 and July 18. By the end of August, the guidelines will be published and enforced – which may well be a marquee point for the global net neutrality debate.
Unlike the Indian consultations earlier this year which focussed only on zero-rated applications, the EU law is comprehensive in tackling two other major challenges of net neutrality: Specialised Services (which creates faster access for certain applications who have tie-ups with internet providers); and, Traffic Management (which allows internet providers to peruse data and decide which internet traffic is important and which is not, rather than the current system of equal distribution).
Learning from India
At this year’s Republica, one of the largest conferences on digital rights in Europe, held in Berlin in May, the Indian campaign as well as the US guidelines featured prominently as the “new hope for Europe”.
The emphatic ’no‘ heard in India public consultations for Zero-rating – which was marketed as giving the poor ’some internet‘ instead of ’no internet‘ – is a lesson for politicians of the West who are “worried” about stopping free zero-rated services, says Barbara van Schewick, Director of the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, whose research has shaped the US response to Net neutrality.
“The Indian response is remarkable, because they saw this as affecting their start-ups and local voices. There was a huge mobilisation, and in the end, the Indian regulatory came up with a nuanced version of zero-rating legislation. It is a model for what we can do here,” she says at the meet.
This is also the rallying cry for the Savetheinternet campaign, which is traveling across the union to rile up support. The campaign is following a strategy similar as that adopted by Indian activists. Instead of a ready-made template (helpful in India where awareness of digital rights is still nascent), the Europe campaign also has the option of answering a few questions about net neutrality, and based on the responses, a template is generated and can be sent to BEREC, EU or member states.
While numbers seen in India (2.4 million responses) or US (4 million responses) may not be possible for the inherently-fragmented EU, activists hope for “hundreds of thousands” of comments.
If the Indian zero-rating guidelines can be a model for Europe, then a faulty European guidelines can set in motion a worrying global domino, particularly in the ‚Global South‘. “(Hitherto, in terms of digital rights and data protection) the EU has been setting standards far beyond its own regional reach, especially in places where democracies are still in the process of elaborating their constitutional and legislative systems. If EU can’t abide to high standards, why should others make a fuss about it?” says Cathleen Berger, Programme Lead for London-based Global Partners Digital and an advisor on digital rights.
If EU falters, it would be a leg up to many governments of Africa and Asia that seek control over the internet, she believes.
Moreover, EU remains a major trading partner for most regions, and an adverse internet law can affect fair competition and have a tendency to establish monopolies.
Mr. Lohninger explains: “This is why we are looking to countries such as India to be involved in these consultations. For, if the internet is not neutral, then Indian start-ups – for instance – will struggle to enter the European market, and we potentially lose out on the services of a half a billion users of the internet.”
India, which is prime in the plans of internet companies scrambling to “connect the last billion”, may well have to learn from the European legislation. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is mulling over net neutrality again as it calls for responses (by June 16) on a proposed model of incentives to provide toll-free access to certain websites. Discussions on specialised services and internet traffic management are yet to be resolved. With just the first battles having been won, it would be prudent for India to keep an eye on Europe over the coming months.