Responding to TRAI on net neutrality in India
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has invited comments from the public on allowing “Differential Pricing for Data Services”.
The consultation paper they are inviting comments on isn’t very long or hard to understand, so I read through that today and sent them my answers to the questions they are seeking answers for. (It also happens that as of now, today is the last date for submissions.)
This is the response I sent, with the questions included inline:
Thank you for inviting the general public into the discussion by inviting comments on this issue. I appreciate it greatly and it improves the confidence I have on the governing process in my country.
On to the questions now:
Question 1: Should the TSPs (Telecom Service Providers / Internet Service Providers) be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms?
Yes, but only under certain conditions (explained below).
Question 2: If differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market entry and innovation are addressed?
To ensure that competition among e-commerce and internet-based businesses remains fair, ANY ONE of the following should be enforced:
The power of deciding what websites / applications / platforms are available for differential pricing through a TSP should NOT reside with a commercial for-profit entity
Websites / applications / platforms of e-commerce and internet-related businesses should NOT be allowed to be accessed with differential pricing
Additionally, to ensure the security and privacy of consumers using the differential pricing scheme, the following should be enforced:
- HTTPS proxying should maintain end-to-end encryption, so that secure requests are not “peeked into” by the TSP or any other intermediary
There are multiple ways in which the above conditions can be implemented. Two possible schemes are illustrated below:
Scheme #1: Distributed decision making
The decision on what websites / applications / platforms are available for differential access price should not be made by a centralized entity - that choice is solely for the website / application / platform to make.
For example, an alternative to FreeBasics can be implemented as follows:
FreeBasics has some technical criteria that need to be fulfilled for the website to be proxied through Facebook’s proxy server. Given this scenario, the consumer can ask for any website (say http://example.com/page) from his mobile device to the proxy server; the proxy server shall find out from example.com whether it wants to make /page available through FreeBasics using a pre-arranged method (e.g. just like robots.txt, use a freebasics-access.txt); if yes, the proxy server can proceed to fetch the page, and if the page passes the required technical criteria, the proxy can forward the page to the consumer’s device. All negotiations happen automatically and transparently - the decision of whether a website is available with zero-rating shall reside with the website owner, and not with the TSP or Facebook. All HTTPS traffic is routed through the proxy as raw packets (like a HTTP CONNECT tunnel), without decryption by the proxy or any other intermediary.
Scheme #2: Only government, non-profit and news websites
E-commerce websites shall not be allowed to be offered under differential pricing. Only websites owned by governmental, non-profit and news organizations (e.g. Wikipedia, MAMA, Aaj Tak, IRCTC, BESCOM) shall be allowed. A commercial entity (e.g. the TSP or Facebook) can decide whether an applying website should be included under the differential pricing scheme or not. However, a government entity (say TRAI) can oversee the process, enforce that only government / news / non-profit websites are included, and arbitrate any disputes that may arise.
Question 3. Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models?
If we exclude differentiated pricing, providing free internet access means that the consumer is allowed to access the whole of the internet without differentiating on what website s/he’s visiting.
The cost of that internet access can be funded in many ways, some of which are:
- The consumer obtains free data access upto to a certain limit along with the purchase of a mobile device, plan or service
- The consumer obtains free data access upto to a certain limit on watching video ads (on unbilled data) for a stipulated time
- The consumer obtains free data access upto to a certain limit as a loyalty benefit
The advantage with these schemes is that they can provide free internet access to consumers without affecting fairness of competition among e-commerce and internet-based businesses.
However, even with these schemes, it is still essential to make sure that the security / privacy aspects (see my answer to Question #2 above) are considered.
Question-4: Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?