Airtel And Flipkart in Hot Water Over Net Neutrality

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Just recently, Airtel launched Zero, a platform that lets app makers pay Airtel so that subscribers can access these apps for free. On the face of it, that sounds like a very useful concept. This is a process called Zero-rating (remember Facebook Zero?). However, it treads on the fine line of Net Neutrality: what happens when big companies pay up and gain and edge over little companies that can’t afford the service?

India’s webspace exploded over this very question when Flipkart announced that it would be joining Airtel Zero.

To put things into perspective, writes Indian tech blog BGR.in, net neutrality is built on the idea that all sites should be equally accessible, at the same speed, and if there is a cost of access, it should be the same for all. As lucrative ‘Airtel Zero’ sounds, we still think that it goes against the principles of net neutrality. The idea that some services will be free, while some who cannot afford to pay Airtel a fee will be at a disadvantage (especially small companies and startups) does not bring healthy competitiveness to play. With this platform, the company is unfairly favoring apps or services that can pay to be on Airtel’s platform.

Net neutrality activists and outraged users took to Google Play to downvote the Flipkart app, a fact dug out by India Today. Flipkart’s CEO made an effort to explain why they didn’t see this as being harmful…

.. but Flipkart eventually announced that they supported Net Neutrality and would be walking away from the Airtel platform.

Airtel, too, made a statement:

Airtel fully supports the concept of Net Neutrality. There have been some misconceptions about our toll free data platform – Airtel Zero. It is a not a tariff proposition but is an open marketing platform that

1.   Allows any application or content provider to offer their service on a toll free basis to their customers who are on our network.
2.   Such customers whether on a data pack or not will therefore be able to access these toll free services free of charge.
3.   No site whether on the toll free platform or not under any circumstances is blocked, throttled or provided any form of preferential access.
4.   The toll free platform is open to all content providers on a completely non discriminatory basis and operates on the same principle as 1-800 toll free voice services.

The statement made by Flipkart regarding their decision not to offer toll free data service to their customers is consistent with our stand that Airtel Zero is not a tariff proposition. It is merely an open platform for content providers to provide toll free data services. The platform remains open to all companies who want to offer these toll free data services to their customers on a completely non discriminatory basis.

Ironically, there are very similar efforts already in place – Facebook and Reliance have a service where they offer 33 websites for free, and it can be argued that, going by the strict definitions of net neutrality, providing an advantage in access to any one site or service over another is evil. The Information reported that Google had plans to waive data charges for certain apps and services on Android One phones.

All of these – even Internet.org – can be a boon or a bane depending on which side of the Net Neutrality fence you stand on – so the question is, are our laws and definitions of right and wrong getting in the way of cheaper, faster and better access to many at the expense of keeping a few vocal Internet users happy? 

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