Net neutrality issue: Startups send SOS to Narendra Modi

Digital India dream cannot be achieved without the open Internet, says letter sent to the prime minister

GN Bureau | April 22, 2015


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India is one of the top countries that gives birth to startups and nurtures them. Net Neutrality is extremely important for this community of innovators. Without physical space the small units can launch their businesses online and sell their products.

READ: Rahul Gandhi on Net Neutrality

However, discrimination on the basis of cost or speed over net will take out their advantage and eventually kill the spirit of net entrepreneurship. In fact, India has huge sum dedicated to startups in union budget and many private investors have pledged millions to seed this community.

READ: All that you should know about Net Neutrality

In an open letter to prime minister Narendra Modi, members of startups have sought Modi’s intervention to preserve the startup ecosystem.

COLUMN:
Let India decide on the future of internet

The letter is also marked to Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Communications and Information Technology and Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry.

The complete letter:

To

Shri Narendra Modi

Prime Minister of India

Subject: Protect the Open Internet in India

Dear Sir,

We are writing to you as founders and stakeholders of Indian technology startups.

Each of us set out on this entrepreneurial journey with a dream to create a world-leading technology company from India. We dream that an Indian startup may one day become the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. We know that you share our dream.

We share another dream with you, the dream of a Digital India. We dream of this as Indians, and also as businesses that wish to serve a fast-growing Indian internet market.

These dreams cannot be achieved without the open Internet.

Preserving the Startup Ecosystem

The Internet is a fountain of creativity because it is a single, global market where anyone can offer a product and be reachable by every user. This results in global competition and exchange of ideas, and drives innovation and progress.

If startups or online service providers had to first obtain a government license, or pay each Internet Service Provider in the world (there are tens of thousands of them), this global market, competition and innovation would disappear.

This is what we stand to lose if telecom operators are allowed to strike deals to favour some online services over their competitors. Under these deals, companies may pay the ISP to make their competitors’ websites inaccessible, slower or more expensive to access than their own.

These practices, if allowed, will exclude promising startups from the Internet and end our dream of seeing them flourish. The western companies that dominate the Indian internet ecosystem today will use their deep pockets to perpetuate their position. The few startups that can afford it will be forced to find growth in foreign markets before they can return to India with the funds to pay ISPs, while the rest shut shop.

This would be a catastrophic outcome for our startup ecosystem.

Building a Digital India

India has the fastest growing internet user base in the world, but over 100 crore Indians still don’t use the Internet.

Bringing them online is not merely a question of infrastructure or affordability; there should first be demand for Internet access. No-one will begin using the Internet just because access is cheap or even free, if all the content and applications are in foreign languages and don’t solve their problems.

These content and applications will not be created by the large western companies that dominate the Internet today, but by Indian startups like us. We can only do this if there is a level playing field, freedom to innovate, and yes, competition to drive us. Which of our apps solves these problems best is a decision for each user to make, and not for a corporate gatekeeper.

As consumer demand rises, and the profitable market for data will drive an expansion in infrastructure. Cellular operators claim, contradicting their own annual reports, that providing internet access is not profitable enough to expand infrastructure. The fact that they haven’t increased prices and continue to advertize their internet plans heavily show that these claims are untrue.

The key to attaining a Digital India is to let Indian startups experiment and build the must-have apps for the next 100 crore Internet users.

Zero Rating is Harmful Discrimination

Some telecom operators and large foreign companies try to use Digital India against the open Internet. They attempt to justify a form of discrimination called zero-rating by saying it allows them to offer “free internet for the poor”. We must point out that these offerings are neither “free”, “the internet” nor “for the poor”.

They are not free but bundled with a paid mobile connection, just as when a toothbrush is given “free” with toothpaste, it is really priced together as a bundle. They don’t even pretend to provide Internet access — the Internet has 100 crore websites and the freedom to start your own, while these offers only have a few dozen cherry-picked websites. Finally, these plans are not marketed to the poor or those who currently lack access, but only to existing internet users of competing operators.

Some argue that even with these flaws a few bundled websites are better than none. On the contrary, permitting these plans will cause serious harm — as a proprietary alternative to the public Internet, it will slow down Internet adoption and delay Digital India. It must be noted that websites of government departments, educational institutions, healthcare providers and others are not accessible in these plans. In addition, these offers will also cause a collapse of competition as crores of Indians will be locked into a few cherry-picked services, resulting in a decline in quality of service and progress.

There are other, equally economical ways to offer non-internet users a bundled data plan to get acquainted with the Internet,  that does not take away their freedom.

Net Neutrality is in the Public Interest


Our desire for a level playing field on the Internet is shared overwhelmingly by consumers. Over the last two weeks over 10 lakh of India’s best-informed citizens have written to TRAI to ask it to uphold equality on the Internet.

Many foreign nations share these views as well. Several, most recently Brazil, have passed laws to ensure “network neutrality” or non-discrimination by ISPs; many more countries like the US and European Union are in the process of doing so.

The Way Forward

We sincerely wish that our government would also protect the open, competitive Internet in India. We request that network neutrality is enforced and all discriminatory practices by ISPs are forbidden — including zero-rating, throttling, blocking, paid prioritization, toll-gating and others. We also hope that the regressive proposal to license online services will be dropped.

We, the startups that are at the forefront of creating the next wave of online applications, request you to take action now. We need you to protect our nation’s innovation ecosystem.

Best regards,

(Signatures)

 

Copy to

Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad
Minister of Communications and Information Technology

Copy to

Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman
Minister of State for Commerce and Industry

 

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