Digital India vs Net Neutrality
Today, when you start up your computer or iPhone and open a web browser such as Chrome or Safari, you can access over 100 million domain names with a few clicks. Your data costs do not change depending on whether you go to Rediff or Flipkart, or whether you download an app to order pizza or post on Twitter or watch a YouTube video. Your data provider — be it Airtel or Reliance or BSNL — does not discriminate between different kinds of content, only how much data you use. This is the benefit of a neutral net, a system that has worked to the advantage of both internet users (who have enjoyed greater choice of content) and numerous start-ups (which have enjoyed unparalleled market access).
But a shift is underway. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited California to drum up support for his Digital India initiative, he effectively endorsed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of expanded access to a pared down internet. Expanded access is, after all, one of the three pillars of Digital India (the other two being e-governance and electronics manufacturing). Why not shift costs to content providers (such as babajobs.com), who enter into exclusive contracts with data providers (such as Reliance), all enabled by Facebook’s Free Basics app? Such an arrangement could expand internet use rapidly in a country where some 80 per cent of the population does not have access, benefiting crores of people. It would also, naturally, benefit Facebook.