Facebook's Internet.org could face regulation in India

An Indian government committee has objected to content and application providers acting as gatekeepers for Internet access

Facebook's Internet.org could face regulation in India after a government-appointed committee on net neutrality said that content and application providers cannot be allowed to act as gatekeepers to the Internet.

Internet.org, which offers mobile phone users access to select services including Facebook with no data charges to promote Internet use among the poor, was criticized by civil rights groups for creating a "walled garden" that favored a few websites.

The social networking website in May threw open participation in the program to websites that met its technical specifications for running on basic phones, were data efficient and let users explore the entire Internet. Facebook said that operator Reliance Communications was not being paid for the free data service, as the program planned to support itself by converting free users into customers for paid services to access the broader Internet.

But the commission, appointed by the Department of Telecommunications, in its report released Thursday said content and application providers cannot be permitted to "act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose."

Such collaborations between telecom service and content providers that enable such a gatekeeping role should be "actively discouraged," it added.

Internet.org did not immediately comment on the committee's report. In a response to critics in India earlier this year, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg said net neutrality should not prevent the underprivileged from accessing the Internet. "It is not an equal Internet if the majority of people can't participate," he added.

The government committee was constituted after a furore over the introduction of the so-called zero-rating plans by Internet.org and mobile operator Bharti Airtel, which launched a platform called Airtel Zero so that app developers could offer zero-rating apps to customers after paying the operator a fee.

The opinions of the committee are, however, recommendations and not binding on government policy. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is also expected to submit its recommendations on net neutrality soon.

Favoring the "core principles" of neutrality, the committee came down against both throttling and paid prioritization of Web traffic. It also opposed regulation of value-added Internet services, referred to as Over The Top services, such as social media apps and messaging services, though it said that local VOIP calls should be regulated in the same manner as services of telecommunications services providers.

The report is a "praiseworthy exercise in balancing the multiple interests involved in the Net neutrality battle," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, in an email. "The panel clearly finds that it is in the public interest to have Net neutrality," he added.

The report further finds that the financial data of the telecom companies does not support their claims that they are bleeding money because Internet companies are offering voice and messaging services, which is their primary argument for why they need to violate net neutrality, Prakash said.

India's traditional concern about the misuse of Internet applications and services, particularly by terrorists, has also surfaced in the report. The new applications transfer the ability to lawfully intercept traffic on networks from governments to private companies, and the providers of these services use advanced encryption that impede law enforcement agencies in lawful interception and monitoring, the committee said.

Emphasizing that "national security is paramount," it recommended inter-ministerial consultations to arrive at measures that ensure that the value-added service providers comply with security requirements.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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