Defender of your Digital Freedom

All Posts | Jul 14,2016

Counter Comments to the Consultation Paper on Free Data

Following our initial comments on the Consultation Paper on Free Data, below are our set of counter comments that serve as responses to the comments made by TSPs and TSP associations. Though a number of substantive proposals have been made in response to the Consultation Paper, owing to the large volume of comments, we have identified some common themes found across the submissions made by major TSPs and TSP associations and presented our responses accordingly.

Return to the differential pricing debate

While proposing potential models for provision of free data, several TSPs and TSP associations have highlighted differentially priced models including zero rated models as being best suited for the purpose. TSPs including Bharti Airtel, while arguing in favor of zero rated models, have even suggested that any anti-competitive concerns can be addressed by mandating TSPs to clearly disclose rate cards for sponsoring data on their respective platforms as well as by enforcing a framework to protect edge providers from denial-of-service by any TSP. A number of TSPs have even portrayed through their responses that zero-rated models are necessary for digital inclusion, and should be promoted rather than prohibited.

The TRAI has notified the Prohibition Of Discriminatory Tariffs For Data Services Regulations, 2016 after considering the opinions of all stakeholders. The TSPs are trying to re-agitate the issue which has already been decided. This consultation on free-data should be limited to that and cannot be used as a means to reopen the discussion on discriminatory tariffs. The Discriminatory Tariffs Regulations not only prohibit such kind of practices but also safeguard the neutral nature of the Internet. We would like to reiterate that research has shown that access to Internet provides individuals and firms a vital resource that facilitates innovation, learning and efficiency, all of which lead to greater productivity and thus, greater economic growth.

This is the reason that even our Government has recognized the importance of Internet and started the Digital India Initiative that seeks to digitally empower our Indian society. But any kind of positive impacts associated with the Internet would not reach our citizens if we are unable to maintain the neutral character of the internet. Zero-rated models, other such service arrangements and differentially priced models though aim at proliferating access are in reality detrimental to the Internet itself.

Various TSPs and TSP Associations in their responses, have also disapproved the need to have a TSP agnostic platform. They have given various reasons in support of their argument such as TSP agnostic platform gives more rights to private party than a licensed party1 and would mean indirect licensing and lead to content providers becoming passive telecom service providers.2 Other reasons given include that there is no guarantee that a TSP agnostic platform will not act as Gatekeeper, as the owner of the website who has commercial interest will be the only interested party to promote his website.3

This perception seems to stem from the fear that a TSP agnostic platform will mean that the TSPs’ own commercial interests will suffer at the hand of OTT players that are “unregulated” and have thus, suggested various models by which OTT Players are either more “regulated” or revenue sharing happens with the TSPs, so that the they may also get their piece of the pie. Some such models include Bharti Airtel’s “Technical Aggregator Model” where TSPs will participate on “FRAND” terms or VAS model wherein the OTT players, like VAS providers will integrate their system with TSPs and work on a revenue share model or Vodafone’s “two-way charging models” under which operators and content providers implement bilateral agreements that’ll govern what benefits are provided to the customers.

However without going into the merits and demerits of specific models, we would like to submit that the various models that are being mooted for in different responses by TSPs and TSP Associations are a rehash of the “Sender Pays” Principle mooted by the European Telecommunication Network Operators Association (ETNO) which was rejected by even by the European Governments at the World Conference on International Telecommunications held at Dubai in December 2012. Such a proposal was even rejected by the Industry representatives from India. However, these models discussed in the consultation paper will in effect result in the sender paying for the data consumed by the user while accessing the website of the sender. Such an approach will change the open nature of the Internet and the permissionless innovation ecosystem that resulted in the growth of the new digital economy. ‘Sender pays principle’ will only help the incumbents and the TSPs and will adversely affect the interests of the startups as well as the users.


Regulation of OTT services

It is also submitted that OTT players are not the same as VAS providers and other players cited in the various submissions and they do not need to be regulated further or in the same way as TSPs. The comparison made in various submissions between OTT players and VAS providers comes from an over simplified and superficial view that OTT players and VAS providers function in similar ways. But the fact is that VAS providers were giving out a bunch of services tightly coupled with the core services provided by the TSPs. However, their functionality and access was dependent on a particular TSP, which is not the case with the OTT players as they can be accessed from any TSP or ISP for that matter, which increases their availability. Moreover, in terms of technology there is not much in common between the VAS providers and OTT players, with the former becoming more or less obsolete.

Similarly OTT players are different from TSPs because communication services offered by OTTs and TSPs differ in terms of functionality, in that the former’s reliance on existing networks for content delivery enables them to bundle additional services such as multimedia file transfer, location based services and so on with their primary service offerings. In light of the functional and architectural differences that exist between communication services provided by OTTs and TSPs, efforts at introducing additional regulatory frameworks aimed at leveling the regulatory playing field with respect to fundamentally different business entities would prove to be counter-productive and serve only to stifle innovation and healthy competition in a free market environment.

Moreover, OTT communication service providers are already regulated by a number of general and specific legislations that prescribe numerous general, technical, financial and security related conditions that OTTs must necessarily comply with. Some of the existing legislations that apply to OTTs are:

  • Information Technology Act, 2000

  • Consumer Protection Act, 1986

  • Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007

  • Indian Copyright Act, 1957

  • Income Tax Act, 1961

  • Customs Act, 1962

  • Central Excise Act, 1944

  • Foreign Exchange Managements Act, 1999

  • Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002

As OTTs are already regulated under the above legislations, we submit that additional regulatory frameworks would be excessive and would hinder the growth of the OTT service industry. We feel the purpose of ensuring comprehensive regulation of OTTs would be better served by a review of how the existing regulations apply to OTTs and making necessary amendments based on the findings, rather than establishing a dedicated regulatory framework from scratch.

Regulations and laws prevailing over telecommunication services such as entry fees, spectrum allocation and charges, tariff regulations etc. cannot be imposed on OTT services for the reason that regulation of websites and applications provided on the Internet would have a direct impact on start-up companies and new entrants who will be forced to comply with regulatory costs notwithstanding the cost of setting up the website in the first place which is very low or even negligible.

The Internet provides an opportunity to everyone, be it college students who are constantly coming up with great, innovative business ideas and even people in rural areas who are able to sell their products on the internet. Over-regulation would mean a loss of all such opportunities and a sudden hindrance to innovation.


To conclude, we reiterate that it does not matter whether the platform used to provide free data services is TSP-agnostic or not. In fact, the premise for the idea of a TSP agnostic platform seems to be that such a platform cannot result in greater control for the TSP and will prevent the TSP acting as a gatekeeper. However, the free data models suggested will result in the bigger players controlling access. In such a scenario, instead of the TSP acting as a gate-keeper, various platforms offering free data will act as gate-keepers.

The Internet is a great leveler and gives options for any service or startup to compete with an established player. But if the bigger players are allowed to control the access of users and user behavior by any means, whether through a rewards platform or through a zero rating service this will result in changing the nature of the Internet. Such approaches will destroy the permission-less innovation feature of the Internet that has resulted in startups like Google and Facebook succeeding.

As per Professor Tim Wu, known among others for his coinage of the term “network neutrality”, models of development must not vest control in any initial prospect-holder, private or public, who is expected to direct the optimal path of innovation, minimizing the excess of innovative competition.4 The argument for net neutrality therefore, is anchored in the protection of certain core characteristics of the Internet that have played central roles in making it a quintessential tool for information exchange in the 21st century, and any understanding of net neutrality that attempts to shift focus from this fact must be seen as subversive.

Thus, any model, irrespective of it being TSP agnostic or not, as long as it is in harmony with the basic tenets of net neutrality and complies with the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016, by not differentiating on the basis of content and providing complete open access to the the full Internet and not parts of it will work in this context.

All Posts | Jul 01,2016

SFLC.in’s Comments on the TRAI Consultation Paper on Free Data

On 19 May, 2016 the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India floated a Consultation Paper on Free Data, inviting stakeholder comments on the need for a Telecom Service Provider agnostic platform to provide free Internet to the under-privileged, the need to regulate such platforms, and whether free data needs to be provided over fixed-line broadband in addition to mobile Internet services. Below is the full text of our comments submitted before TRAI:

Question 1: Is there a need to have TSP agnostic platform to provide free data or suitable reimbursement to users, without violating the principles of Differential Pricing for Data laid down in TRAI Regulation? Please suggest the most suitable model to achieve the objective.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue in his 2011 report has stated that “Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States. Each State should thus develop a concrete and effective policy, in consultation with individuals from all sections of society, including the private sector and relevant Government ministries, to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population”.1 Thus, we as a nation have to take steps to ensure greater Internet access to the entire population.

Research shows that access to Internet provides individuals and firms a vital resource that facilitates innovation, learning and efficiency, all of which lead to greater productivity and thus, greater economic growth. The positive impacts associated with the Internet are possible because of the neutral nature of the Internet. According to Tim Wu, “the argument for net neutrality must be understood as the concrete expression of a system of belief about innovation, whose adherents view the innovation process as a survival-of-the-fittest competition among developers of new technologies”.2

We believe that improving access is important, however the method adopted for it should be in tune with the principles of Net Neutrality and should make available the entire Open Internet to the users and not a select bouquet of services. So long as the entire Internet is made available and there is no discrimination of services or websites on the basis of content, it does not matter whether the platform used to provide free data services is TSP agnostic or not. In fact, the premise for the idea of a TSP agnostic platform seems to be that such a platform cannot result in greater control for the TSP and will prevent the TSP acting as a gatekeeper. However, the free data models suggested in the paper will result in the bigger players controlling access. In such a scenario, instead of the TSP acting as a gate-keeper, various platforms offering free data will act as gate-keepers.

The Internet is a great leveler and gives options for any service or startup to compete with an established player. However, if the bigger players are allowed to control the access of users and user behaviour by any means, whether through a rewards platform or through a zero rating service this will result in changing the nature of the Internet. Such approaches will destroy the permissionless innovation feature of the Internet that has resulted in startups like Google and Facebook succeeding.

As per Tim Wu, models of development must not vest control in any initial prospect-holder, private or public, who is expected to direct the optimal path of innovation, minimizing the excess of innovative competition.3 This innovation theory is embodied in the end-to-end network design argument, which in essence suggests that networks should be neutral as among applications.4 The design of the Internet Protocol follows this end-to-end principle and this has ensured the success of the Internet.

The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 embodies the principles of net neutrality in this context that it “mandates that no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content, and also no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content.”5

Thus, any model, irrespective of it being TSP agnostic or not, as long as it complies with the above regulation, by not differentiating on the basis of content & providing complete open access to the the full Internet and not parts of it will work in this context. Zero rating models do not contribute much to access. Research done by the Alliance for Affordable Internet shows that “88% of people using zero-rating responded that they had used the Internet before using the zero-rated plan. This means that only 12% of zero-rating users surveyed started using the Internet with their zero-rated service.” The study also reveals that “when asked what condition would be most acceptable to get “free data” or zero-rated data, a majority (82%) of users prefer to have the “free plan” valid for a short time or with a data cap, with no restriction on the websites and applications that can be accessed”.6 Thus, compared to free data plans that give restricted access or benefits for accessing parts of the Internet, a free plan that provides access to the Internet is more beneficial.

For the purpose of answering the question we have done an analysis of the suggested models, if they are compliant with the current regulation, their pros & cons and other alternative models that may be used.

1. Reward based model

The reward based model will result in allowing the bigger players to control user behaviour by rewarding users for accessing their websites and services. This will be used as a method to subvert the restriction preventing discrimination of websites and services enshrined in the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016. Thus, the harm that the Regulations tried to prevent will manifest in another form. In this model, the users will be forced to use the websites and services that provide them rewards or data recharges. This will be to the detriment of other competing websites and services. In this model, the end result is the content provider paying for the data consumed by the end user. Instead of a direct transfer in the case of a TSP owned platform, the money gets routed to the TSP through another platform.

2. Don’t Charge or Toll-free API Model

This model is a Zero Rating model where the players with deep pockets will make their sites available for free. By adding an entity in between the TSP and the content provider does not change the nature of this tie-up and has the same effect as the content provider entering into a tie-up with the TSP. This is clearly in violation of the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016. In this model also, the payment gets routed from the content provider to the TSP.

3. Direct Money Transfer

This approach can be used only if the Direct Money transfer is controlled by the Government as a means for providing data to the less privileged sections. However, this should not be an option for private players to reimburse users for accessing their websites. If private players are allowed to reimburse users, then it will again be a case of content based discrimination, where a few sites, mainly the bigger players will get to control user access and user behaviour. Moreover, identifying users for the purpose of direct money transfer will also result in the violation of privacy rights of users.

The illustrations given below shows that the suggested models in the consultation paper are in effect the zero rating model which was sought to be prevented by the Differential Pricing Regulation.

Zero Rating Flow ChartToll Free Flowchart

Reward based FlowchartDBT Flowchart

The above models are a rehash of the "Sender Pays" Principle mooted by the European Telecommunication Network Operators Association (ETNO) which was rejected by even by the European Governments at the World Conference on International Telecommunications held in Dubai in December 2012. Such a proposal was even rejected by the Industry representatives from India. However, these models discussed in the consultation paper will in effect result in the sender paying for the data consumed by the user while accessing the website of the sender.


We believe that any approach for providing free data should make available the entire open Internet to the user and should also not tamper with the principles of net neutrality that allow for competition and prevents discrimination.


This is one of the versions of “equal rating” system rooted by Mozilla Foundation’s chairwoman Mitchell Baker.7 Each user gets a free pack each month for their internet usage, independent & on top of their own existing internet packs that they may or may not have. The free pack has a cap on the volume of data, like 500 MB per month. Similar model8 has already received success, wherein Mozilla has partnered with Orange in African and Middle Eastern countries where users purchasing a $40 (USD) Klif phone (which runs on the Firefox operating system) receive unlimited talk, text, and 500 MB a month for 6 months.


This is another version of “equal rating” system. This model supports the creation of revenue for the TSPs through advertisements. Users are given certain data credits for watching them while browsing the internet. Mozilla has seen quite a success in Bangladesh wherein “the foundation has been working with Grameenphone (a Telenor-owned company) in Bangladesh where users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.”9


This model provides the entire internet, with no restriction on volume or content, but operates on a 2G network. Thus, effectively this model makes the 2G Network a generic low-speed zero rated mobile network.10 This model is better for ISP bandwidth usage and easy on infrastructural demands.


This method would enable people to access the Internet in public places by creating Wi-Fi hotspots from a single connection. Government, TSPs and Other Companies can jointly collaborate with certain venues like libraries, schools, gram-panchayat offices, railway stations, airports, public transportation systems & cabs to provide Wi-Fi connectivity & free internet to the public. Along with providing free Wi-FI, some of these venues can even act like community centres aimed at being a forum for digital literacy. Companies/TSPs paying for the data can get a 'brought to you by' attribution like the free pack or equal rating model & it can even be counted towards its CSR initiative.


Question 2: Whether such platforms need to be regulated by the TRAI or market be allowed to develop these platforms?

We think that a “mixed economy” approach will be better suited for such kind of platforms. Allowing market to develop such platforms can lead to innovative models. However, lack of regulatory oversight and complete reliance on market forces will lead to collapse of such models, lead to anti-competitive effects and will result in violation of the principles of net neutrality. Thus, a mixed economy approach that focuses on both innovation & net neutrality should be the way forward. As mentioned in our answer to the previous question any free data model should provide the entire open internet and should not be limited to a select bouquet of sites.


Question 3: Whether free data or suitable reimbursement to users should be limited to mobile data users only or could it be extended through technical means to subscribers of fixed line broadband or leased line?

Broadband is defined, as per Notification No. S.O. No. 4-4/2009-Policy-I dated July 18, 2013 issued by the Department of Telecommunications, as a data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 512 kbps to an individual subscriber from the point of presence (POP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service.

As indicated by TRAI's Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators report for the quarter October – December 2015, out of the 331.66 million Internet subscribers in India, 311.69 million subscribe to mobile Internet services, while a mere 19.98 million subscribe to fixed-line Internet services.11 In other words, roughly 94% of Indian Internet users access the Internet through their mobile devices, leaving around 6% as fixed-line Internet users, indicating a clear preference for mobile Internet services over fixed-line amongst Indian Internet users.

Moreover, the access and billing patterns of mobile and fixed-line Internet see wide variance between each other. Whereas the owners of all Internet-capable phones will have on-demand Internet access built into their subscription plans by default, fixed-line Internet requires prospective customers to approach service providers and purchase dedicated data plans along with the requisite customer-premise equipment such as modems and/or routers. In the absence of volume-based data plans, mobile Internet charges are levied on the basis of data consumed in given billing cycles.

Fixed-line Internet subscriptions on the other hand, follow multiple billing systems, where subscribers are able to choose from both data-capped and uncapped plans. Subscribers of the former category are generally allotted monthly quotas of high-speed data, upon the exhaustion of which additional charges are levied according to the subscribers’ data use. Data-uncapped plans allot subscribers fixed quotas of high-speed data, upon whose exhaustion Internet speeds are restricted to baseline broadband levels albeit with no additional costs relative to data consumption. There are substantial costs to be borne by the customer in procuring a fixed-line Internet connection including equipment costs, installation charges, monthly rentals and the data charges themselves. As a result, any customer who is in a position to procure a fixed-line Internet connection to begin with will derive little to no value from free-data and reimbursement initiatives, where the amount of Internet use enabled by such initiatives will inevitably be significantly lesser than their paid counterparts.

For the above reasons, it is our submission that any initiative aimed at bringing Internet access to those unable to afford the relatively high cost of data should focus on the mobile Internet rather than fixed-line Internet services. However, it must also be borne in mind that any future regulation concerning free-data or reimbursement initiatives must make no distinction between Internet access via mobile as opposed to fixed-line services. The Internet is the Internet irrespective of the mode of access, and there must be no differences in its regulatory treatment in this regard. Regulations are necessary for both mobile and fixed-line Internet services to avoid gamesmanship designed to avoid the Regulations against differential pricing promulgated by TRAI, and the regulator must consider if practices that invariably harm the open Internet work similarly on mobile or fixed-line services.


Question 4: Any other issue related to the matter of consultation.

In the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016, the proviso to Section 3(2) exempts data services provided over “closed electronic communications networks” (CECNs) from the general prohibition on differentially priced data services. While the proviso does make it clear that the prohibition would still apply if CECNs are leveraged in such a manner as to circumvent it, some industry players and consortia have been observed attempting to obfuscate this understanding by claiming a lack of clarity as regards the ambit and application of the proviso.

We wish to submit that the Regulations in general and the proviso to Section 3(2) in particular are both well-grounded in reason, and leave no room for ambiguities in their interpretation. As per the Regulations, differentially priced data services offered over the open Internet stand prohibited at all times, whereas such pricing arbitrages in internal CECNs that are separate and distinct from the open Internet will be allowed and will attract no financial disincentives from the regulator. Attempts at circumventing this regulatory premise are easily identifiable as such – offering content from particular content providers at discounted rates over a CECN to the subscriber base of a TSP for instance, is a clear circumvention of the prohibition on differential pricing.

That being said, we submit that it would nevertheless be beneficial in the interest of precluding further efforts at obfuscation and compromise to clearly outline the scope of exemption under Section 3(2) by way of illustrative examples of both permitted and prohibited uses of CECNs as a means of data delivery at differential tariffs.

We reiterate that TRAI is the apposite sectoral regulator for the telecommunications industry, and having already laid down a model Regulation against differentially priced data services, the focus going forward must be on ensuring its sound implementation rather than entertaining unfounded exhortations for its reconsideration.



1The report is available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf

2Tim Wu, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Journal on Telecom and High Tech Law, available at:



4J H Saltzer et al., End-to-End Arguments in System Design, available at:


5 Regulation 3, Chapter II of The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016

6 The report is available at http://a4ai.org/is-zero-rating-really-bringing-people-online/

7Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker offers alternatives to zero-rating for Internet services -



9Supra 10


11Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicator Report for the Quarter ended December, 2015, May 18, 2016, p. ii, available at: http://www.trai.gov.in/Content/PerformanceIndicatorsReports/1_1_PerformanceIndicatorsReports.aspx, last accessed on June 30, 2016

All Posts | Jan 20,2016

Free Basics Investigation

So while all of us were busy turning the consultation paper on differential pricing of data services put out by TRAI into a battle ground for Net Neutrality in India, on the sidelines, we decided to checkout Free Basics in action. So we got hold of a Reliance SIM card and a dying smart phone to take the free* ride.

Dear TRAI, Free Basics is Still Around

Reliance is defying TRAI's order to shut down Free Basics

We started off with the possible vanity of the attempt since TRAI had already asked Reliance Communications to put the Free Basics program on hold, and Reliance said it has complied. However, we were greeted with the welcome message and then the confirmation button to accept Facebook's terms, Data policy, cookies policy and privacy policy.

Welcome to Free Basics

Turns out, Reliance chose to carry on providing Free Basics on its network, openly violating the regulator's order to temporarily shut down the service. Neither is Reliance or Facebook informing its users about the order.

Websites on Free Basics

There are about 135 websites registered with Free Basics. A curated, most likely hand-picked list of 45 services is provided as soon as the app opens, and the rest of them are hidden under 'More Services'.

Primarily, these are information oriented websites like news, encyclopedia, guides and tips. Further, there are services like classifieds, blood donation etc.

To see the full list of services available on Free Basics, browse through the below gallery of screenshots.

For First-time Internet Users

There is one site that introduces users about the basics of Internet on a site that isn't particularly branded. Based on traffic analysis, we determined that the site is served from an IP on Reliance's network. There is a disclaimer in the footer denying responsibility for the accuracy of information on the site.

Wikipedia on Free Basics

The only website in Free Basics currently that allows users to become content creators is Wikipedia, except sending comments on news articles. Although we weren't able to get the comment submission form load up on TOI's articles.

The Wikipedia editing experience seems to be the same as editing it over a regular 3G network. Interestingly, Free Basics doesn't use Wikipedia Zero, the project from Wikimedia Foundation to provide free-of-cost access to Wikipedia. WMF has taken a stand on Net Neutrality different from that of its usual friends and allies in support of this project and its aims. Free Basics seems to be using the regular method of accessing Wikipedia based on (a) the URLs being requested and (b) the absence of the usual banner on top of Wiki articles which notify its users about free data usage.

Music and Video

There are no video sites like Youtube available through Free Basics. We were however able to use a music streaming service from Hungama.com which had exactly 4 songs available for free. Unlike the dynamic nature of their service on the 'full' website, the list on the free basic version seems to be a static one, which has the same 4 songs available for a few days that we have been observing.Any of the other links that offer more music, pop up a message notifying the user about going out of Free Basics and applicable charges for further usage.

This is an example of how Free Basics users could be subjected to inferior quality services. The warning about data charges being applicable for accessing anything beyond the meagerly available content, makes the user give a second thought before proceeding.

Free Basics Hungama Music Free Basics Hungama Exit

Personal Blogs

Some of the sites listed in Free Basics appear to be personal blogs of individuals. Here's a direct link to one such blog which appear as is on Free Basics.

Technical Details

The Proxy Server

We tried to understand how Free Basics handles the proxy setup to relay connections from partnering websites to the users.This is the proxy server which acts as the gateway to the Facebook's version of 'free and basic' Internet. This server

After clicking on the service from the list, the app sends a request to the proxy server over HTTP with the target website's URL and the further communication happens over SSL which we haven't been able to inspect so far. Watch out for more updates about this.

Free Basics Proxy Requests

Here's an example of how the proxy request is structured. These requests are sent to the proxy for every single resource required on a web page, like images, CSS styles, Javascript code etc.

Free Basics Proxy Requests


Data Usage

We used Free Basics for almost an hour exploring the content on its partner websites. We also streamed all the 4 'basic bollywood' songs from Hungama's website to account for some significant data usage. We checked the available data balance before and after the one hour period. The balance report from Reliance confirms that the data usage through Free Basics has been zero rated by Reliance. The data usage accounted by the phone towards Free Basics app was about 40MB during that period, while Reliance reported only a consumption of about 1MB (used by other apps on the phone during that period).

Data Usage Report from Reliance

Data Usage Report on Phone

Lifetime "Free" Facebook

Of course, when we were away, there were these promotional text messages once in a while from Reliance, informing us about zero-rated Facebook for lifetime.

Welcome to Free Basics

Watch out for more updates on this post, as we continue to find out more about Free Basics. Tweet to us @SFLC.in about what else you want to know.

All Posts | Dec 11,2015

On the TRAI Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing on Data Services

The Telecom regulatory Authority of India has issued a Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services on November 9, 2015 and invited public comments to be sent by December 30, 2015. The paper discusses issues related to differential tariff plans of the Telecom Service providers (TSPs) who offer zero or discounted tariffs to content of certain websites/ applications/platforms.

The questions raised in the consultation paper are:

Question 1: Should the TSPs be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms? Question 2: If differential pricing for data usage is permitted, what measures should be adopted to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, affordable Internet access, competition and market entry and innovation are addressed? Question 3: Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free Internet access to the consumers? If yes, please suggest/describe these methods/technologies/business models. Also, describe the potential benefits and disadvantages associated with such methods/technologies/business models? Question 4: Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?

But, weren't these issues already covered by the earlier consultation paper on regulation of OTT services? The Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services was published by TRAI on March 27, 2015 and it received over a million responses from Indian citizens, TSPs and civil society organizations. Question 14 of that paper was "Is there a justification for allowing differential pricing for data access and OTT communication services? If so, what changes need to be brought about in the present tariff and regulatory framework for telecommunication services in the country? Please comment with justifications". We still do not know the current status of the consultation process after TRAI had received comments as well as counter-comments from the public.

The earlier consultation paper led to widespread debates and saw Facebook's Internet.org (now renamed as Free Basics) and the COAI unleashing massive PR exercises to counter the public support received by the Save the Internet campaign.

SFLC.in submitted detailed comments and counter-comments to TRAI covering the issue of differential pricing and more specifically zero-rated services. We have explained in detail that zero-rating distorts competition, harms start-ups and innovations and harms consumers. We also listed alternate mechanisms that could be used to improve Internet access without violating the net neutrality principles.

The TRAI consultation paper was followed by the setting up of a Committee by the Department of Telecommunications to look into issues around Net Neutrality. The 110-page outcome report of the Committee’s inquiry was made public on July 16, 2015. The Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology also held detailed hearings on the issue, but the report is awaited.

The Department of Telecommunications Committee in its report on Net Neutrality has stated that it is "of the firm opinion that 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. Collaborations between TSPs and content providers that enable such gate-keeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged. If need be, Government and the regulator may step in to restore balance to ensure that the Internet continues to remain an open and neutral platform for expression and innovation with no TSP/ISP, or for that matter any content or application provider, having the potential or exercising the ability to determine user choice, distort consumer markets or significantly controlling preferences based on either market dominance or gate-keeping roles."

It would be useful to understand the motivation behind the initiation of this new consultation mid-way through the earlier consultation process. Is this a separate consultation or will this process be adding on to the earlier consultation? Was this necessitated because TRAI needed more inputs specifically on the issue of differential pricing? SFLC.in will be sending in our comments to TRAI, but we are unsure as to the need for two separate consultation processes.

Image Credit: Mlaurenti on en.wikipedia available under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

All Posts | Nov 30,2015

Interventions in the Internet Governance Forum 2015 by SFLC.in

Implementing Core Principles in the Digital Age

Mishi Choudhary on the panel talking about privacy, surveillance and its role in a free democracy. She also discusses self assigned innovation by technologists which the example of the FreedomBox project supported by the Freedom Box Foundation.

Zero rating and neutrality policies in developing countries Can Internet rights and access goals be reconciled? A multistakeholder and human rights approach to Cyber Security FOSS & a Free, Open Internet: Synergies for Development A Dialogue on Zero Rating and Network Neutrality

All Posts | Jul 17,2015

Core recommendations of the DOT Committee on net-neutrality

In light of the emergence of net-neutrality and regulation of Over-the-Top (OTT) services as popular topics in national policy debates, in January 2015, the Department of Telecommunications under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) constituted a Committee chaired by Shri A K Bhargava [Member (T), DOT] with the following terms of reference:

  1. To examine the pursuit of net-neutrality from a public policy perspective, its advantages and limitations.

  2. To examine the economic impact on the telecom sector that arises from the existence of a regulated telecom services sector and unregulated content and applications sector including OTT services.

  3. To examine, assess and specify qualifications on the applicability of the principle of net-neutrality from the security, traffic management, economic, privacy and other stand-points.

  4. To recommend overall policy, regulatory and technical responses in light of examination and assessment of the issues in the first three terms of reference.

The 110-page outcome report of said Committee's inquiry, presented before the MCIT in May 2015, was made public on July 16, 2015. Below are excerpts from the report highlighting the core recommendations made by the Committee.

Conceptually on net-neutrality

  • The Committee is of the view that there is no need to hard code the definition of Net Neutrality but assimilate the core principles of Net Neutrality and shape the actions around them. The core principles of net-neutrality must be adhered to. However, this would need to be circumscribed by certain unequivocal conditions that do not breach the core requirements of net-neutrality as they are commonly understood. Said conditions would include but aren't limited to the intrinsic need to protect networks from disruptive attacks, management of Internet traffic, need to comply with legal obligations, and maintenance of acceptable Quality-of-Service (QoS) levels for some real time services.

Generally on the policy approach to net-neutrality

  • Considering the large Internet user-base and the critical role of the Internet in our economic, social, and political spaces, India should initiate action in formulating an objective net-neutrality policy tailored to the needs of the nation.

  • The endeavor in the policy approach should be to identify and eliminate actions that inhibit innovation in an open Internet or severely inhibit investment in infrastructure.

  • The primary goals of public policy should be directed towards achieving developmental aims of the country by facilitating "affordable broadband", "quality broadband", and "universal broadband" for its citizens. Accordingly, public policy should:

    • expand access to broadband;

    • endeavor (through Digital India) to bridge the digital divide and promote social inclusion;

    • enable investment, directly or indirectly, to facilitate broadband expansion;

    • ensure the functioning of competitive markets in network, content and applications by prohibiting and preventing practises that distort competition;

    • recognize unbridled right of users to access lawful content of their choice without discrimination;

    • support the investment-innovation virtuous cycle, and the development of applications relevant to and customized for users.

  • User rights on the Internet need to be ensured so that Telecom/Internet Service Providers (TSPs/ISPs) do not restrict the ability of the user to send, receive, display, use, or post any legal content, applications, or services on the Internet, or restrict any kind of lawful Internet activity or use.

On regulation of Over-the-Top (OTT) services

For the purposes of the report, OTT services are broadly classified into (i) OTT communications services [real time person-to-person telecommunication services], and (ii) OTT application services [media, trade & commerce, cloud, social media etc.]. The Committee notes that while both OTT messaging and international voice calling services have affected TSP revenues, neither have completely disrupted TSP revenue models. The Committee is also of the view that the statement of the TSPs that they are under financial stress due to rapidly falling voice revenues and insufficient growth in data revenues is not borne out by evaluation of financial data. However, OTT domestic voice calling services have the potential to significantly disrupt existing TSP revenue models. The existence of regulatory and pricing arbitrages further exacerbates the problem, and calls for a calibrated response to ensure a level playing field. The immediate imperative for the Government is to facilitate investment in broadband infrastructure and bring out policy certainty in the investment climate. Consequently, the Committee finds that ensuring a policy and regulatory level playing field in OTT domestic voice calling services is extremely important. With this in mind, the Committee recommends the following:

  • OTT application services have been available in the market for some time, and enhance consumer welfare and productivity. Therefore, such services should be actively encouraged and any impediments in expansion and growth of OTT application services should be removed.

  • OTT messaging services should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments.

  • As public policy requires that regulatory arbitrage does not dictate winners and losers in competitive markets, the Committee favors regulation of OTT voice calling service providers. In case of OTT international voice calling services, a liberal approach may be adopted. However, in case of domestic calls, communication services offered by TSPs and OTTs must be treated similarly. The nature of regulatory similarity, calibration of regulatory response, and its phasing may be appropriately determined after public consultations and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (TRAI) recommendations to this effect.

Specific policy recommendations on net-neutrality

  • A clause should be incorporated in the license agreements of TSPs/ISPs that require licensees to adhere to the principles and conditions of net-neutrality as specified by guidelines issued by the licensor (DOT) from time to time. The guidelines can describe the principles and conditions of net-neutrality in detail and provide applicable criteria to test any violation of the principles of net-neutrality. (Annexure IV of the report contains a set of suggested guidelines, which includes several indicative criteria against which adherence to the core principles of net-neutrality may be tested. Said criteria include non-curtailment of freedom of expression, non-discriminatory access, freedom to connect devices of one's choice to networks and services, non-hindrance of competition, observance of privacy and security standards etc.)

  • Since net-neutrality related cases would require specialized expertise, a cell in the DOT headquarters may be set up to deal with such cases. In case of violations, the existing two-stage procedure involving the review and appeal processes may be followed.

  • There should be a separation of the "application layer" and the "network layer", as application services are delivered over a licensed network. OTT application services are not similar to licensed communication services, thereby precluding the possibility of regulatory arbitrage arising from competition between licensed service providers and OTT application service providers. Where regulatory intervention is not required (i.e. in the cases of OTT international voice calling services and OTT chat/messaging services), licensing requirements can be dispensed with. On the limited aspect of OTT domestic calling services, the Committee reiterates its view that such services should be regulated through the exercise of licensing powers available under Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act.

  • A new legislation, when replacing the existing legal framework, must incorporate the principles of net-neutrality. Till such time as an appropriate legal framework is enacted, interim provisions enforceable through license agreements may be the way forward.

  • Tariff shall be regulated by TRAI as at present. Whenever a new tariff is introduced, it should be tested against the principles of net-neutrality. Post implementation, complaints regarding tariffs violating net-neutrality may be dealt with by the DOT.

  • Net-neutrality issues arising out of traffic management would have reporting and auditing requirements, which may be performed and enforced by the DOT.

  • QoS issues fall within TRAI's jurisdiction. Similarly, reporting related to transparency requirements will need to be dealt with by TRAI.

On traffic management

The Committee recommends that legitimate traffic management practises may be allowed, but should be tested against the core principles of net-neutrality. The following are identified as general criteria against which traffic management practises can be tested:

  • TSPs/ISPs should make adequate disclosures to users about their traffic management policies, tools, and intervention practises to maintain transparency and allow users to make informed choices.

  • Unreasonable traffic management, which is exploitative or anti-competitive in nature, may not be permitted.

  • In general, for legitimate network management, application-agnostic control may be used. However, application-specific control within the "Internet traffic" class may not be permitted.

  • Traffic management practises like DPI should not be used for unlawful access to the type and contents of an application in an IP packet.

  • Improper (paid or otherwise) prioritization may not be permitted.

  • Traffic management being complex and specialized, adequate capacity building needs to be done before undertaking such an exercise. Mechanisms to minimize frivolous complaints are desirable.

On tariffs and zero-rated services

The Committee feels that there are multitudes of possibilities in designing tariff plans, and it would not be possible to pre-determine all possibilities and their standing with respect to net-neutrality principles. Conclusions on whether specific tariff plans breach net-neutrality would have to be made in the context of their designs and the outcomes they generate, including their ability to distort consumer markets. Therefore, the Committee proposes that tariff plans (including zero-rated plans) be dealt with in the following ways:

  • Ex-ante determination - Before a licensee launches any tariff plan, the same would need to be filed before TRAI within a reasonable period prior to the launch of the plan. TRAI would examine each such tariff filing carefully to see if conforms to the principles of Net Neutrality principles and that it is not anti competitive by distorting consumer markets. Such a filing requirement would include a deemed approval clause, if the regulator does not decide within a reasonable period. This would ensure balance of interests protecting the liberty of TSPs/ISPs to design specific tariff plans attuned to specific customer demands and at the same time ensure that the principles of Net Neutrality are not breached.

  • Ex-post regulation - Complaints on tariff plans may be dealt with on a case by case basis through an adjudicatory process to be specified by the regulator and after giving a reasonable opportunity of being heard. Imposition of penalties or financial disincentives could be considered if the principles of Net Neutrality are violated. However, the measurement principles are to be defined to gauge whether the tariff plans impinge on Net Neutrality principles.

Specifically on zero-rated services, the Committee finds that 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. Collaborations between TSPs and content providers that enable such gatekeeping should be actively discouraged. The Committee notes that in the market for content provision, clear market leaders emerge in a short while. If such market leaders are able to dictate the path to specific content, the principles of non-discriminatory access from a user view-point can be compromised, leading to distortions in the content provision market and consequent implications for the larger Internet economy and innovation.

On security and privacy

The Committee finds that Internet-based communication and application services transfer the ability to lawfully intercept traffic moving over networks away from Governments to private companies, who are not amenable to national legal jurisdictions. Loss of this ability has the possibility of compromising national security and law enforcement capabilities. Therefore, there is a need for a balance to be drawn to retain the country's ability to protect the privacy of its citizens and data protection without rendering it difficult for business operations. One possibility is to identify critical and important areas through public consultations where there may be a requirement to mandate local hosting or retaining enforcement capabilities in cases of breach.

Further, the Committee believes that national security is paramount, regardless of the treatment of net-neutrality. It therefore recommends inter-ministerial consultations to work out measures to ensure compliance of security related requirements from OTT service providers.

On content delivery, interconnection, and managed services

  • Content Delivery Networks (CDN) are arrangements for managing content as a business strategy. Making available one provider's CDN to others on commercial terms is a normal business activity. Discrimination in access or adoption of anti-competitive practices by them is best left to be covered under the law relating to unfair trade practices.

  • Managed services are necessary requirements for businesses and enterprises, and suitable exceptions may be made for treatment of such services in the net-neutrality context.

  • No specific recommendations are made on search neutrality, but the issue is flagged as a concern for public discussion.

All Posts | Apr 22,2015

Net Neutrality: Bottom-up Perspectives

Half-day Consultation 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm, 22 April 2015, Mascot Hotel, Trivandrum

SFLC.IN in association with ICFOSS, ISOC Trivandrum, IEEE Kerala Section, and Swatantra Malayalam Computing, is organizing a half- day consultation bringing together a cross-section of stakeholders, to highlight the issues around Net Neutrality and to stimulate debate and action. In particular, the consultation will address the concerns of the grassroots-level Internet user who depends on the Internet for his personal life, work, as well as recreation today

Net Neutrality promises non-discriminatory treatment of all traffic on the Internet. Under a net-neutral regime, all Internet traffic— irrespective of factors such as user identity, content, platform, site, application, access device, protocol, IP address, language, or mode of communication—would be handled the same way by Internet service providers. Internet Society says that Net Neutrality "...is the founding principle of the Internet and what allows the Internet to be the largest and most diverse platform for expression in recent history."

However, some firms, particularly telecom companies and Internet Service Providers, have long argued that they should be allowed to operate a tiered service model where they are able to generate revenues by prioritizing some kinds of traffic (such as by destination, protocol or content).

Proponents of Net Neutrality have, in turn, maintained that letting telcom companies prioritize traffic would result in a regime that would allow them to parse traffic contents, stifle user choice, create gatekeepers, violate the end-to-end principle, and ultimately fragment the Internet undermining its basic democratic character.

In India, there are no laws currently that enforce Net Neutrality. In December 2014, Airtel announced its plans to charge for VoIP traffic. The Internet.org initiative of Facebook and Reliance that was announced in Feb 2015, and the Airtel "Zero" initiative announced in April 2015, both based on the "zero-rating" concept, violate the principle of Net Neutrality, and consequently have generated much debate and considerable consternation within the Internet user community.