Trai’s plan for OTT regulation goes far beyond telecommunications for no reason
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) released its draft consultation paper on the regulatory framework for OTT (over the top) services last week. There are several issues with this document, ranging from language that hides its meaning, selecting examples of net neutrality while ignoring those who disagree with its
the decisions proposals and draw conclusions about the losses incurred by telecommunications providers without real justification.
The problem is that the term OTT, as defined in the document, is wide-ranging and refers to all of the apps and services that you can access online – from Gmail to Facebook to websites of news like NDTV.com or even apps like Uber or Foodpanda.
The issue goes beyond simple net neutrality, although it is important for all Indians. However, Trai’s guidelines go well beyond the telecommunications industry and begin to look at things like health, social sentiment and physical business concerns. This doesn’t really seem relevant in a paper that aims to understand the impact of internet businesses on telecommunications providers.
(See also: What is net neutrality? Here’s a simple explanation)
You can read the consultation paper yourself on Trai’s website. The regulator is seeking input from all stakeholders by April 24 — including consumers like you and me — and we urge our readers to read this article and then send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. in to let your government know what you expect.
(See also: Anyone thinking about net neutrality in India?)
We read the complicated 118-page document and while we certainly wouldn’t call ourselves experts on the subject, some passages seemed particularly concerning and didn’t seem to belong in this discussion at all. We’ve already highlighted the biggest telecommunications issues in the document, but here are a few of the draft’s passages that seem completely tangential.
The argument that internet services disrupt physical businesses and therefore need to be regulated by Trai seems pretty random. It is clear that online businesses are disrupting traditional models. The rebates are said to have cost e-commerce sites around Rs. 1,000 crore in losses and this behavior appears in many ways to be anti-competitive.
However, these are matters that have little to do with telecommunications, which is Trai’s mandate, and have no place in this document. An app shouldn’t require a green light from Trai before it can be distributed in India.
Trai also raises the dreaded specter of hacking – and describes the internet as a parking lot with a thief lurking – this kind of scaremongering language is misleading, and perhaps more importantly, just allowing people to access apps and to websites cannot be blamed for these things. Unless the Trai suggests some sort of safety net, the overall implication of these two points is that we simply shouldn’t have internet access in India.
Besides thieves in parking lots, predators, stalkers, bullies and scammers fill the internet in Trai’s eyes. Children should avoid file sharing, chat rooms and online games. You can almost imagine someone saying, “When we were kids, we didn’t have any of that Internet stuff. If you wanted to play, you went outside and had fun.”
Cyberbullying and (gasp!) “Sexting” (their quotes, not ours) are the scary phrases of the day, which are apparently made possible by OTTs. Of course, you could say it was the prevalence of smartphones that caused this in the first place, so maybe Trai can issue a Mobile License, which will be needed to use a smartphone, much like a driver’s license.
Companies like Ola and Uber are also disrupting the taxi industry, and this, according to Trai, should be regulated. We totally agree. However, taxi companies should be regulated like taxi companies – the fleets these companies hire operate very differently from their business in the West and are closer to acting like radio taxi fleets than private rental cars.
(See also: Why it’s a mistake to think of Uber as a tech company)
This appears to be an issue for the Department of Transportation – which is already investigating taxi apps – not Trai.
Trai also seems to believe that consumer protection laws don’t apply to e-commerce websites, which is quite odd. If a site is the seller, why can’t you designate them as the respondent in case of a problem? And in the case of a market model, the seller is always clearly indicated and reachable when you make a purchase. The laws of the land shouldn’t cease to exist just because something is online, and you shouldn’t require special laws for the internet, as India’s Supreme Court recently proved.
(See also: Bringing Internet Freedom to India)
It’s also quite interesting that while Trai in other parts of this document complains that OTT services make it difficult for the government to access your data, on this point he goes so far as to say that Big Data (and not Big Brother) monitors . The use of the term ‘Big Data’ aside, this is actually something we agree with Trai on – not that OTTs shouldn’t collect data, but the government should have provisions ensuring the privacy of citizens. The catch is that it should be universal, not something the government can violate on a whim.
Here we see Trai worrying that tech-savvy thieves will use your GPS information to break into your house while you’re away. As you can see though, the Regulator is a bit conflicted as they say these apps could be useful for law enforcement. These are real concerns that need to be debated, but again, Trai does not seem like the ideal forum for discussing national security issues.
Cultural sensitivity is a bugbear that comes up quite often in Trai’s draft consultation document. Here the Regulator talks about how social media was used to send inflammatory photos targeting students in the North East in 2012. This is problematic as Trai seems to be suggesting that we shouldn’t have the ability to quickly communicate on social platforms that allow messages to spread quickly, in the name of cultural sensitivity. In an article whose main idea is that OTTs are hurting telecom revenues, this seems like a strong emotional point that isn’t really relevant to the key argument in the first place.
(Also see: Net neutrality is lost in the confusing language of Trai’s draft OTT regulations)
These are just a few examples of how the Trai document seems to want to focus on all issues that are not related to net neutrality and telecommunications. At a time when our providers are using fair usage policies to offer limited plans which they call “unlimited”, where Airtel was considering special rates so Skype calls would not be cheaper than voice calls, while billing is often wrong, never transparent, and our call and data services are barely acceptable, it seems Trai should be looking at what the telcos can do best, instead of helping them do nothing new and earn even more money.
Again, please read the newspaper and write to Trai before April 24. It’s for all of us.