IFF’s Comments on TRAI’s Recommendations on Free Data

This week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India released a set of recommendations for Free Data in rural areas. This is the result of a process that started with a consultation paper this May.

We appreciate TRAI’s efforts to increase internet penetration in rural areas. However, after carefully considering the recommendations, we believe they are risky, presenting privacy concerns, and could very well end up threatening net neutrality principles.

We welcome the recommendation on 100MB of free data being given to everyone in rural areas but worry about the mechanism by which this will be implemented. TRAI suggests that telecom operators should submit details on data consumption to the USOF for reimbursement from the USOF. This presents a privacy concern. User consent should be obtained for sharing their personal usage behaviour details. It is also unclear if TRAI is recommending 100 MB per mobile connection or per individual. As dual SIM phones are common and new connections easily obtained, users could easily obtain several times the limit at the expense of the USOF. A limit per individual will require deduplication and additional data sharing between telecoms and the USOF.

TRAI’s other recommendation on the idea of ‘aggregators’ is severely troubling. It could open the door for large telecom operators to exploit ambiguities in the recommendations to subvert principles of an open Internet and net neutrality. Aggregators act as data pack brokers, acquiring data packs from across telecoms and reimbursing users on behalf of apps or websites accessed by the user.

As we pointed out to TRAI, a rewards-based model which reimburses a user for accessing a pre-selected website has the same impact as zero rating and is a violation of net neutrality. It also leads to the creation of a carriage fee model where the aggregator charges content creators fees for provisioning of rewards to users. A neutral net does not discriminate between creators and consumers.

While TRAI recommends that aggregators have no special relationships with telecom operators, thereby being required to buy data packs on the open market, it leaves open several ambiguities. There is no prohibition on telecom operators investing in aggregators, or any obligation on them to provide services to aggregators; or any obligation for aggregators to be fair to apps/websites. There are at present deficient processes to ensure transparency to ensure compliance.

We believe that for a rural India to thrive and fully reap the benefits of a Digital India, an open Internet is essential. Recommendations that threaten the foundational principles of the Internet might have a profound impact on Internet usage in rural areas, and on the independence of the Internet at large. The TRAI has been applauded all over the world for its commitment to net neutrality in making regulations to prevent discriminatory behaviour. We believe the present recommendations are at variance with such commitments.

Internet Freedom Foundation online:

Website: https://internetfreedom.in/
Twitter: @internetfreedom
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/iffsti
LinkedIn: Internet Freedom Foundation

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