Way back in the early 90’s as a journalist, my photographer colleague who was a few decades my senior would regale me with stories of old media lore. One of the protagonists that I remember Monada (Mona Chowdhury, may his soul Rest in Peace!) mentioning was the Late Ashok Jain. The first Indian owner of the Times of India Group, which later became a megalith through the efforts of his sons, now media doyens, Samir and Vineet Jain. But, I digress!
One story that I remember and today becomes particularly relevant in this public domain debate between Free Basics vs. Net Neutrality revolves around Ashok Jain. According to Mona-da, there was a fearsome debate between an editor and a business head in his office, with his company secretary sitting around taking notes. After listening to each chieftain, Ashok-ji (as he was referred to by his inner circle) nodded sagely, and said, “You are right!”. At which point of time, the company secretary looked up from his notepad and blurted out, “Ashokji, both of them can’t be right. One of them has to be right!” Ashokji, thought for a moment, and told the company secretary” You know, YOU are right!”. And with that, all further discussion ended right there.
As TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) searches for a solution or rather, weighs in to accept or defend the cause of Free Basics or Internet.org OR Net Neutrality, I am reminded of this episode, re-told with great dramatic flourish by my photographer mentor.
And yet, as far as I can tell there should be no debate. Here is Facebook’s defense to the points that Times Of India, the media megalith raised. And interestingly, I agree to all the points. If Facebook, Google, Amazon, Flipkart want to bring down or remove access costs for people who are still without internet access, and they want privilege entry into their ‘walled garden’ am sure no consumer will complain.
So, what’s this hoo haa about Net Neutrality? Firstly, it’s not new. The debate is almost as old as motherhood and apple pie. And the same set of appeals are being made here as they have been in front of FCC in the US. See this Link.
Now, here’s where my Point of View (PoV) starts resembling Ashok-ji’s. If Facebook says its internet.org or Free Basics will give access to another billion users who can’t pay for data connectivity, I laud them for their altruism and vote for free enterprise. On the other hand, if the advocates of Net Neutrality are fighting against the subsidy of free access, which translates into policing of views on the internet, or even paying the price later, I congratulate them for their fervor in upholding the first right of free democracy- the right to free speech, without fear of distortion or deletion.
And then when the third party asks me why I am saying both are right, I know that a third option is actually already open. You see, my career journey also spanned the start of the mobile revolution in India. In 2004-5, we used to say that 2 percent of India’s GDP growth is actually because of mobile penetration. And there was good reason for that. Way back then, the New Telecom Policy 1999 had devised a revenue sharing plan for mobile operators instead of paying upfront for air waves, and create a Universal Service Obligation Fund with TRAI as the administrator, this is a practice that global regulators have upheld as a “Best Practice”. Unfortunately, like in every other space, the Government has been found lacking in implementation, and till 2013 just 30% of the levies collected had been spent on affordable rural connectivity.
Assuming that the private sector will deliver telecom, and more relevant to the topic, data access, where the government fears to tread, is a pipe dream. At least in India, in every industry sector, including IT and ITeS, the government or rather its business entities were the first to enter and expand the field for the private sector to follow. In recent years, the government has found value (such as the sale of VSNL and CMC to the Tata group) and political brickbats for selling those organisations to the private sector, but the job had to be done.
Even as recently, as last week, the new aviation routes to tier 2 and 3 cities are first being opened up by Air India, instead of private players.
And then, when I look at how Microsoft faced anti-trust legislation in the European Union, for bundling Internet Explorer in Windows 95, or even the flak that Google faces for its almost monopolistic positioning for its search and adwords combined with its Android OS, it’s no surprise that suspicion of business interest will prevail among folks who believe the basic tenets of equality, liberty, fraternity are being infringed upon in the digital space.
So, here’s my solution, inspired by what Ashok-ji may have said. Let the ISP’s and TSP’s who are providing the access, and who are being subsidized by Facebook, Google, Amazon, whoever else, deposit the said amounts (assume it’s 0.5%) with a common authority (say TRAI). Let that money actually be spent, via BSNL and other government owned organisations, on providing access to the under/ unserved. And let that be audited, and reviewed by the ISP/TSP and the Facebook, Google, Amazon combine alongwith the Net Neutrality lobby.
After all, if it’s for common good, let all the stakeholders in, and allow all citizens equal and rightful access to services, which are based on their common assets (land, airwaves, energy, and water).