We love that people read our research. But we would love it more if they try to do justice to how real people use the Internet.
Comcast has for long been cast in the role of opponent of net neutrality. But according to this report, the roles are beginning to blur. “We support permanent, strong, legally enforceable net neutrality rules,” said Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, which once successfully sued the F.C.C.
The debate on zero rating has been heavy on overwrought analogies and light on actual evidence. Here is evidence from focus groups of people who actually use zero rating in Myanmar. Research conducted by Peter Cihon and Helani Galpaya with support from Mozilla Foundation and others. Perception and visibility aside, users do not remain within the ‘walled garden’. Most active zero-rated-content users also use other Internet services, including Google, news websites, and apps.
OTTs and telcos really need to come up with better names to differentiate their products and services. Really. Or maybe confusion is just the point. First there was Free Basics, Facebook’s service which gives free access to a set of applications inside the app (it was previously called Internet.org, a supposedly clever name which of course was used by Facebooks critics point out the fact that it wasn’t really the “Internet”, but again, perhaps that was the point).
Helani Galpaya and Shamistra Soysa participated in the second IGF (2007) held in Rio. But in 2015 our engagement was an order of magnitude higher. Helani participated in two Main Sessions and five workshops. She also spoke at a side event organized by Deutsche Welle for media personnel from Africa. Tuesday, November 10 9:00am-10:30am WS 126 Can Internet rights and access goals be reconciled?
At the 2015 Stockholm Internet Forum that just completed, I moderated one of the best attended unconference sessions titled “Zero rating violates net neutrality. So what?“. The discussion I moderated was heated, with a spectrum of opinions being expressed. Some said that zero rated content simply creates a ghetto-ized version of the Internet for the poor and therefore should not be allowed.
The raging debate on Zero Rated content is, for the most part, taking place in a vacuum of evidence. A successful campaign by activists ensured that many of the 1.2 million responses sent to TRAI’s proposed net neutrality regulations in April 2015 called for banning internet.org (Facebook’s Zero Rated offering, now called Free Basics). The fear that the poor who use the free version of the internet offered by Facebook will not use anything else but Facebook has been one of the harms many advocates put forth.
Helani Galpaya asks the most basic question in a Council on Foreign Relations blog. She bases her position on evidence from the field: her direct observations in Java that went around the world and the recent Myanmar baseline Teleuse study. In the end, the best defense against the possible downsides of ZR is high levels of competition at all parts of the broadband value chain—content, application, devices, international connectivity—not just in retail mobile connectivity. Given the low capacity of many regulatory institutions in Asia, it probably makes sense for regulators to focus on creating a competitive environment and let the ZR battle play out, while being ready to act if actual harm occurs. If regulators insist on acting to enforce net neutrality policies, they could take other actions, such as making ZR offerings time-limited or mandating the first click outside of the walled garden also be zero-rated.
Low connectivity and low regulatory capacity are characteristics of most emerging Asian countries. Any NN regulation needs to take these realities into account. So when we looked at the possible ways TRAI can and should act, we ended somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Read our response here.
Just a few days ago, the big data team posted some thoughts on how TRAI could analyze the one million plus comments it received in response to its consultation paper on OTT services. The Business Standard has extensively quoted from that collectively authored suggestions on how technology could help productively mobilize the flood of citizen ideas enabled by technology. Last year, the corporate affairs ministry had commissioned a platform to receive responses on the hundreds of sections and sub-sections of the Companies Act. The platform, built by Corporate Professionals, allowed section-wise responses; it classified responses under different heads such as drafting errors and conceptual issues. Further, separate log-in ids were provided for different sections of stakeholders.
The news reports suggest that TRAI has already received nearly 1 million submissions to its recent “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services” that has sparked a heated debate on net neutrality. In addition to drafting a response ourselves, we also turned our attention to the problem of analyzing such a large volume of responses. Significant amount of time and effort would be required to read and interpret, as well to even formulate a basic general outline of what the public and other stakeholders are trying to say. To put it mildly, TRAI is going to have its work cut out if they are to give each response due justice. Current and former researchers from our big data team, Kaushalya Madhawa, Danaja Maldeniya, and Nisansa de Silva brainstormed a technology augmented approach to the problem of analyzing the responses.
As LIRNEasia Senior Research Fellow, Payal Malik has made significant contributions to Indian telecom policy and regulation over the years. She also brings to bear a unique perspective because of her experience in implementing competition law. Going beyond the emotive, she has co-authored a thoughtful op-ed that all who engage in the net neutrality debate in India should pay attention to. India’s antitrust regime empowers the Competition Commission of India to block business activities that harm consumer welfare, restrict consumer choice or deny market access. Such enforcement with a precise enforcement mandate, exclusively targeting objectionable activities, while leaving other pro-competitive conduct that benefits consumers unregulated.
That Quartz piece sure has legs. Ask Helani Galpaya, a researcher with policy think tank LIRNEasia, who in 2012 came across a curious anomaly while researching “bottom of pyramid” telephone users in Indonesia. When asked questions about the Internet, most of the respondents said they didn’t use it. But when asked about Facebook, most of them said they used it often. “In their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” concluded Rohan Samarajiva, LIRNEasia’s head.
In 1998, I was in the middle of an intense interconnection fight. It was worse than zero-sum. The Japanese incumbent telco which had purchased 35% of the shares of the Lankan incumbent telco had created a mindset that was extremely hostile to the competitive fixed telcos the government had licensed a year back. Interconnection disputes, where one party’s gain is seen as the other’s loss, are inherently difficult to resolve using even the best mediation techniques because of this. But in 1998 Sri Lanka, the problem was exacerbated by the desire of the incumbent and its Japanese mamagement to demote the parties requesting interconnection from equals to subordinate agents.
A public consultation, invited by TRAI, on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services has encountered furious netzines’ barrage in India. Comedy superstars of All India Bakchod (AIB) have produced a 9-minute video that brilliantly explains why net neutrality should be defended. It has also detected conspicuously bad elements in TRAI’s consultation document. The video ends with a link to savetheinternet.in that has a pre-written response to the 20 questions in the TRAI consultation paper.
The situations in the US and our countries are very different: we have more competition at the access-network level, we have more people who are not connected and our retail pricing schemes are more rational. But it’s illuminating that the FCC is not as excited about zero rating as some other people: Under the FCC’s newly approved net neutrality rules, wireless carriers and other ISPs will not have to go the agency and ask permission every time they want to introduce a new offering or mobile broadband plan, such as a new zero-rating plan, according to FCC officials. The FCC adopted three so-called “bright line” rules for net neutrality: no blocking of legal content; no throttling of Internet traffic on the basis of content; and no paid prioritization of content. For everything not covered by those rules, the FCC approved a catchall “standard for future conduct,” which will used to ensure that broadband providers are not “unreasonably interfering with or unreasonably disadvantaging” the ability of consumers and content providers to use the Internet and connect to each other. Future practices will be judged on a case-by-case basis.