Vishal Misra goes before Indian Parliament Committee to present views on net neutrality
The contentious issue of net neutrality, which roiled the US earlier this year, is now playing out in India, with Vishal Misra an active participant. Last week he appeared before Parliament to present his views on net neutrality, and subsequently contributed articles and interviews for leading media outlets (including in The Hindu and in The Financial Express).
His opinion is sought both for his deep grasp of the technical issues surrounding net neutrality as well as his experience building Internet-based businesses. An associate professor of computer science at Columbia, Misra has been researching Internet economics issues for the past eight years, particularly how profit-motivated decisions by Internet service providers are eroding the long-standing principle of net neutrality. (His research is summarized in Net neutrality is all good and fine; the real problem is elsewhere.) He is also an early and still active Internet entrepreneur, having co-founded CricInfo, the world's most popular single sport website (exceeding even nfl.com or mlb.com in popularity) and is ESPN's most popular property (ESPN acquired CricInfo in 2007). More recently, Misra founded the data center storage startup Infinio.
Misra's appearance before Parliament came at the invitation of the Standing Committee on Information Technology, which is considering a recent government report (prepared by the Department of Transportation, or DoT) on net-neutrality policy formulations. The report was made available for public comments while a small group of interested parties—including Misra, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and a small number of local companies and public interest groups—were asked by the committee to present their views on the report in person.
The DoT report for the most part enforces net neutrality by banning blocking, throttling, and prioritizing content. However, it still allows for—subject to regulatory approval—the practice of zero rating.
In zero rating, consumers access certain apps and sites for free, without having to pay data charges. Those charges are either absorbed by the service provider (as a way to attract customers) or are underwritten by content providers through payments to the service provider. Facebook for instance might pay Airtel (India's largest telecom operator) an agreed-upon amount to cover data charges for Facebook customers on Airtel. For Facebook customers on networks other than Airtel, Facebook would separately negotiate with those other providers.
On the surface zero rating seems like a good deal for consumers, and Facebook has been especially active in promoting zero rating, pitching it as an accessibility effort to make Internet access more affordable for the large percentage of Indian consumers who otherwise couldn't afford to pay for that access. (It is estimated that only around 19% of India's population has Internet access.)
But as critics point out, zero rating creates an uneven playing field that benefits large, well-funded companies that can afford to subsidize their customers' data charges. Their packets are "free" while packets from companies unable to afford zero-rating payments are not. It's a pricing structure that discriminates against mainly small companies and startups, even if they offer superior services or innovative features.
While the exact definition of net neutrality is often debated (Misra himself addresses this issue in What Constitutes Net Neutrality?), net neutrality is universally understood to prohibit service providers from discriminating among packets based on who the content is for. Enacting the DoT's rule as it is written now gives an opening to Indian service providers to do just that.
Facebook and Google and other large, well-funded companies not surprisingly tend to support zero rating. From public statements, it can be assumed Facebook voiced its support for the policy before the Standing Committee on Information Technology. (Google declined its invitation to depose.)
Testimony before the committee is confidential, but Misra's support for net neutrality practices is well-known not only from articles and statements he has made in the past, but through his extensive research examining network neutrality from engineering, networking, and economic perspectives. (See On Cooperative Settlement Between Content, Transit and Eyeball Internet Service Providers and The Public Option: A Non-regulatory Alternative to Network Neutrality.) This research in particular highlights the danger of anti-competitive, non-neutral practices. Whether it's ISPs favoring certain packets over others (as in zero rating) or a lack of competition in the last-mile connection, the effect is the same: innovation suffers, and service providers lose the incentive to improve service and keep prices low.
That zero rating should be banned seems to be shared by a growing segment of the Indian population. The deadline for the public to comment on the government report, originally set for August 15, had to be extended by five days to accommodate the huge number of comments, almost all of which is favor banning zero rating.
The government's response to the DoT report and public comments is expected in two to three months.
- Linda Crane

Posted: 8/21/2015