from the we-see-what-you’re-up-to dept
If you recall, Facebook’s Internet.org recently took a nasty international public relations beating for its disregard of net neutrality, with content companies dropping out of the purportedly-altruistic program in droves. These companies complained that the program, which gives consumers in developing nations free access to some Facebook-approved services, set a horrible precedent by placing Facebook in the kingmaker position of a new AOL-esque empire, allowing it to pick and choose winners and losers.
The Indian government appears to agree, suggesting in the policy recommendation that Internet.org is basically glorified collusion:
” Content providers have an incentive to leverage the gatekeeper role of networks to collaborate and collude with TSPs/ISPs to stand above competition. Although such practices may enhance consumer welfare in the short run, the distortion in content markets would result in immense damage to the fabric of the Internet economy besides affecting the spread of innovation. While it may be legitimate for content providers to use business tools such as advertisements, reaching the consumer through the control of access or influence over access may have a deleterious impact on the economy.”
If Facebook really wants to help the poor, critics like Mozilla have suggested, the company can offer discounted access to the actual Internet.
So the good news: the Indian recommendations seem to recognize Internet.org for what it is: Facebook’s attempt to elevate itself, break the Internet, and corner ad markets in developing nations for decades to come under the pretense of altruism. That’s something Facebook makes pretty clear it doesn’t think most people are smart enough to realize. On the flip side, there’s some suggestions that cellular carrier Airtel (opposed to Internet.org) had plenty of input in the proceedings, since while zero rating by content companies is outright banned, zero rating by wireless carriers will be examined on a case-by-case basis:
“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.”
That’s effectively the same approach taken by the FCC here in the States regarding zero rating. While some see this as sane implementation of flexible regulation, as noted previously, it allows ISPs to violate net neutrality if they’re just clever enough about it. For example, here in the States, T-Mobile’s been making the biggest streaming services cap exempt to the detriment of smaller companies. Support for the plan has been relatively-thunderous despite obvious neutrality implications. AT&T, similarly, has been pushing the idea of letting companies pay to be cap exempt (again, breaking the open Internet and giving select parties a leg up) and many consumers and regulators simply can’t see the problematic precedent.
Both of those examples suggest carriers can still blatantly violate net neutrality if the sales pitch is good enough, so you’ll need some pretty uncharacteristically tech savvy, consistent and competent regulators if you’re going to honestly determine competitive harm from zero rating on a case-by-case basis. Of course these are just recommendations, so they could change with pressure. In a statement, Facebook still claims they created Internet.org to “promote an Internet access model that is open and non-exclusive,” and is looking forward to working with the Indian government to convince them that collusion is fine ”overcome the infrastructure, affordability and social barriers that exist today.”