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IT for Change Newsletter, July 2015

NET NEUTRALITY: Decoding the buzz
 

IT For Change traces the contours of the global net neutrality debate
 
One of the most significant moments of the global net neutrality (NN) debate was when the U.S. President Barack Obama spoke out in its support in a video message, urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that “neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online”. Subsequently, in a landmark decision taken by the FCC in February 2015, new rules were approved for governing Internet traffic which forbade Internet providers from blocking or slowing down traffic or prioritising content from any website.

Network neutrality means applying well-established "common carrier" rules to the Internet. The concept of common carriage, which predates the Internet by centuries, states that certain services (such as roadways and postal services) must be offered to the public in a non-discriminatory way. In this context, NN prohibits the owner of a network from discriminating against information by halting, slowing down, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data (except for legitimate network management purposes such as easing congestion or blocking spam).

The Internet has the potential to foster greater equality, social justice and democracy if it is ensured that the entrenched power structures and social inequalities embedded in our society are not reflected online. The NN principle is essential to this levelling nature of the Internet. However, the telecommunication companies (telcos) who own the 'pipes' that carry the Internet, are intent on playing a gatekeeping role, whereby they want to be able to charge content providers to give their content priority, or otherwise better treatment.

NN proponents insist that there be no discrimination among Internet apps, content and services based on any commercial considerations. This includes banning any arrangement where service providers partially or fully subsidise the data costs so that the consumers get some services at a lower cost or free(zero-rating).

Telcos make an argument in favour of providing non-net neutral Internet to people in poverty since it is cheaper or free. Facebook's initiative, Internet.org, promises to connect people from the farthest corners of the earth. An important point raised by several people working with ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) for development is that a lot of first time users of Internet services do so only either out of necessity or because they have free access to them. Thus, free services provide an incentive to start using the Internet, and enable a rapid spread of access among those groups who previously lacked it.

The problem however, is that such users of zero-rated Internet will only access the part of the Internet controlled by powerful vested interests, and thus will be vulnerable to their manipulations. They would be denied participation in a truly democratic and culturally-diverse Internet.

Another concern often raised by the telcos is the loss of revenue they face in an increasingly IP-centric environment, as apps like Skype and WhatsApp eat into their revenue from telephony and SMSes. They feel entitled to a sufficient return on their investment in the infrastructure. Rajan Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operations Association of India (COAI), has suggested “a revenue sharing arrangement between the over-the-top service providers and telecom service providers”.

The loss of incentive to telcos to improve their infrastructure and maintain their services is not merely a matter of corporate interest but a matter of public concern as it could potentially lead to widespread disruption of services and under-investment in their expansion. Despite this, the fact is that any losses caused by decrease in voice calls and SMS are being more than made up by the exponential increase in data consumption. It is entirely possible for telcos to maintain their profits without violating NN.

Advocates of NN use several arguments in their case against non-net neutral Internet. An open letter written to Mark Zuckerberg, from digital rights organisations and groups from around the world, states that Facebook is building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of websites and services. They further argue that NN supports freedom of expression and equality of opportunity by enabling people to seek, receive and impart information, and interact as equals. An important aspect of net neutrality states that everyone should be able to innovate without permission from any entity.

NN is about equality of opportunity in social, economic, cultural and political fields. Such basic human rights cannot be compromised due to commercial interests. The ability of startups to challenge big tech giants will be under threat if we allow for the creation of Internet fast lanes open only to those who can afford to buy access to them. Lack of NN will lead to deeper entrenchment of monopolies on the Internet.

In March, 2015 the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper on the regulatory framework of Over-The-Top services (OTT), which also address the NN issue. Members of civil society successfully created popular campaigns, like SaveTheInternet.in which attracted participation from over a million Indians in less than a month. The government thus came under intense pressure and instituted a committee to look into the NN issue. This committee has submitted its report to the government and the latter's decision on NN policy is awaited.

Recently, the EU came out with NN guidelines, set to become law by April 2016, which are evidently less rigorous than the U.S. rules. Zero-rating is allowed, as are 'specialized services of higher quality' without enough clarity on what could be covered under this category. The European Commission did not sufficiently address the various risks that come with these discriminatory services.

In the coming months NN will continue to be hotly debated as violations are being reported from around the world everyday and governments are beginning to politically consider this issue.

—  Pragati Mitta

Our stand on Net Neutrality in the Wake of the Recent Debates in India

We assert that India needs strong net neutrality (NN) regulation which will act as a guarantor of the Internet's egalitarian promise. We are of the opinion that the 'access' argument given against strong NN regulation (and in favour of zero-rating platforms) in developing countries is dangerous. Because of greater inequality, developing countries, in fact, require even stronger NN protection than developed countries.

ZERO-RATING SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED

'Zero-rating' is the practice in which data costs for Internet services get paid for by the owners of the content/applications and not by the consumers. Only content/application providers with deep pockets can have their services delivered in this manner. To access other services, a consumer has to pay separately.

In the context of a developing country like India, some commentators support zero-rating as a proposed solution to the 'access problem'. We are, however, strongly opposed to it. Such practices cause major distortions in the architecture of the public Internet. A selective sponsored version of the 'Internet', put together by the ISPs and their partners, is made available for free against the priced 'public Internet', in which all content, applications and services are available on an equal basis.

This introduces a perverse incentive into the system whereby individual consumers are expected to exercise a choice of immediate benefit and opt for the 'free channel', or the 'sponsored Internet'.  which is a gated Internet of some select sites. To make it alluring, ISPs and their partners will ensure that the 'zero-rated channel' increasingly has enough variety and choice to tempt most Internet users. They can also keep making the 'public Internet' costlier and, in other ways, less attractive than the 'sponsored Internet'. Thus, there is every chance for the 'zero-rated channel' to become the dominant manner of 'Internet' consumption, relegating the real 'public Internet' to the margins. With a sponsored free channel, the Internet would lose its egalitarian character, and become an enclosed space dominated by the strongest commercial players.

It is imperative that 'zero-rating' is treated as a violation of the public interest principle of NN and is expressly disallowed.

POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION

We argue, on the other hand, that there is a need for policy-determined 'positive discrimination' for some Internet services, such as key public services related to education, healthcare and livelihood support. We support 'positive discrimination' where such a practice is based on transparent public policy and not on the basis of telecommunication companies'(telcos) own decisions, which would always be commercially motivated. We make an important distinction between 'zero-rating' as a commercial practice, as done by telcos, and appropriate 'positive discrimination' in public interest that would be decided and determined by the law and administered by a regulator.

We are of the view that if the government wants to provide some basic public services free of data charges to all people –  for instance, a customary democratic consultation with people on key policy issues –  an NN regulation cannot be be allowed to stand in the way. Similarly, if one was to propose that all community radios be provided a free channel in public interest, a strict interpretation of the NN principle should not deter this. We see these as cases of positive discrimination which should be allowed for by NN regulation. However, the concerned public policy and regulation should be explicit about what qualifies for positive discrimination. Such exceptions to NN should also be administered by an independent regulator and not by the executive branch of the government.

INTERNET SERVICES SHOULD BE REGULATED

During the open consultation by the regulator, a very large number of NN proponents in India have also argued that there should be no government regulation of Internet services “at present or in the future”. This, we think, is a rather sweeping and ill-considered demand to make.

We are of the belief that new regulatory thinking and practices with regard to the Internet and Internet services, especially those that are emerging as monopolies in their respective segments, are urgently needed. We suggest that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) should initiate an independent process of consultation on this, and not mix it with the NN issue. Taking a human rights approach by first developing a somewhat omnibus set of Internet principles, as done by Brazil with its Marco Civil, will be a useful way to go forward.

THERE SHOULD BE NO LICENSING OF INTERNET SERVICES

While seeking a separate consultation from the authorities on Internet regulation, we assert that any kind of licensing regime for Internet services is inappropriate. Unlike the mature field of telecom services, Internet based services are in a constant flux of innovation and disruption, with new kinds of services evolving continuously. Any prior licensing requirement will simply kill this field. What makes the matter even more complex is identifying which communication services to seek licensing for – since text, audio and video can now be embedded in most regular websites and applications. Licensing will simply foreclose new possibilities and innovations in this area. If Internet services had been licensed when they first came around, we would not have the Internet we know today.

Our submissions to the Government Committee on net neutrality and the Telecom Regulator can be found here and here.

IN FOCUS: GLOBAL

FORUM ON GENDER & MEDIA

The Beijing +20 stock-taking around gender and media has moved the debate -- recognising the central role of new media and technologies and attendant issues of access, agency, participation and representation of women in the information society. At the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2015, Association for Progressive Communications (APC) advocated for the re-prioritisation of Section J of the Beijing Platform for Action. Section J calls upon governments to recognise the critical role that the media and ICTs play in both the furthering and suppression of women's rights and emphasises increasing women's access to expression and decision-making in and through the media and ICTs, as well as promoting a balanced portrayal of women in the media. Through ICTs, women may access information and build networks of solidarity, which could better equip them to challenge and subvert dominant patriarchal systems and institutions. However, women's access to technology is limited, and they are often subjected to online forms of violence, like trolling and cyber-harassment. The digital surveillance and censorship tactics that states have been increasingly employing to monitor citizens also pose a threat to the possibilities that the digital domain offers, as does the consolidation of power over the governance of technology and the media by multinational conglomerates and elites.

In the context of this debate, an international forum on 'Gender, Media, ICTs and Journalism: 20 years after the BPfA' was organised in Mexico City on May 27th and 28th, 2015 by the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in collaboration with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Humanities (CIICH) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to review the implementation of Section J, its critical areas, current challenges, and highlight an action agenda on media and gender to contribute to the post-2015 development agenda. IT for Change participated in the event, bringing reflection about the Beijing plus 20 agenda. Anita Gurumurthy outlined the ways in which a feminist theory of media must interrogate the network-data complex through which patriarchy in contemporary times is entrenched further, and strategise for a transformative digital agenda. The panel on gender and media policy looked at the relevance of feminist interventions in influencing policy, and Anita Gurumurthy's paper examined the need for social policy to be based on a vision of women as economic agents, which would require the creation of new, local information and communication networks. There was a presentation of regional reports on the subject of gender and media, and the situational analysis of the Asia region may be found here.

A few of the speakers from the conference were interviewed in teleSUR's 'Interviews from Mexico' program, which picked up issues of freedom of expression, women's voices in the media, the contradictions of the digital space and the need for a feminist digital agenda. During the forum, Anita Gurumurthy, in conversation with Cimacnoticias discussed ICTs as tools through which women may access new spaces and become visible actors in the media. As this also leaves them vulnerable to online abuse, there is a need for governments to guarantee rights online and ensure the democratisation of the digital space.

IN FOCUS: NATIONAL

ENERGISING EDUCATION

The 'Subject Teacher Forum'(STF), in-service teacher education program of Karnataka, based on the 'professional learning communities' model of teacher professional development, has successfully created a learning environment that is self-directed, peer-learning based, mentored and continuous. IT for Change (ITfC) is the resource institution that has designed and implemented the STF. In the last five years, a virtual network of around 15,000 teachers and teacher educators have been created through subject forums in Mathematics, Science, Social Science, Kannada, English and School Leadership. Teachers have shared ideas, experiences, resources and seeked help, in over 65,000 emails in the STF mailing lists. The resources created and adapted by teachers are uploaded and made available on the Karnataka Open Educational Resources (KOER).

The STF is 'systemic', it is funded by the 'Rashtriya Madhyamika Shiksha Abhiyaan' (RMSA) program, which is the GOI centrally sponsored scheme for secondary education and implemented by the DSERT, (Directorate of State Education, Research and Training, Bengaluru), the Karnataka state apex body for teacher-education. Hence it is a sustainable and scalable program. The RMSA, World Bank and the Department for International Development annually constitute a 'Joint Review Mission' (JRM), to review program design, implementation and make policy recommendations and the the JRM report mentions that the STF project initiative have resulted into an impressive in-service training program in Karnataka whereby, teachers have learnt to use digital tools and resources for their subject teaching, making Karnataka a good example for good practices and successful innovations. The report recommends that RMSA should build capacity in collaborative resource creation by teachers and teacher educators  and all resources created by RMSA should be released as 'open educational resources'.

Based on the JRM recommendations, the Assam and Telangana governments  in India have requested ITfC to initiate a similar program in their states. ITfC has already conducted workshops to create subject teacher forums for mathematics, science and social science teachers in Telangana and initial discussions with Assam RMSA are in progress. Bihar is also actively considering a similar model for training their primary school teachers on a 'pre-service' program.

UPCOMING EVENTS
 

INTERNET SOCIAL FORUM

Have you joined yet?
Internet and its governance is of fundamental importance to the way our social institutions are shaping up, and to whether they will be more egalitarian or still lesser, that we need to build a people's movement in this area. Find more information here.
 

COMMUNITY BROADBAND WORKSHOP

August, 2015. New Delhi
IT for Change plans to hold a workshop on 'community broadband' in August 2015, to build momentum for community-owned last mile networks in India, which alone can ensure real and adequate connectivity in rural and other marginalised parts of India. We will also be building a network of actors interested in working together in this area. Mail itfc@itforchange.net for details.
 

Why India is a follower in cyberspace when it can lead?
Director, ITfC, Parminder Jeet Singh's piece in The Wire

SSLC district rankings, a game?
Director, ITfC, Gurumurthy Kasinathan's article in Deccan Herald

Geographies of Information Inequality in sub Saharan Africa

Inclusion Online: How offline discrimination closes off online spaces

A legacy on how gender is built into the way we discuss and use technology

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