Save the internet: Tech startups write an open letter to PM on net neutrality

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New Delhi, April 22: Amid a raging debate over equal Internet access for all, the team at 'savetheinternet.in' along with several members from tech start-ups have written an open letter to the Prime Minister, asking him to support them over the issue. [What is Net Neutrality and Save The Internet: Explained]

In the letter, they have urged PM to preserve the open, competitive internet and explained how net neutrality will be in the public interest.

The letter also talks about how one of the Indian startups could go on to become the next Google or Amazon. 

PM Narendra Modi

The letter which has been put up on the ‘savetheinternet.in' website, is also marked to Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman.

It has been signed by start-ups like Housing.com, Goibibo, Medinama, Scrollback.

[A victory for netizens: Flipkart pulls out of Airtel Zero after social media backlash]

Here is the entire letter:

Dear Sir,

We are writing to you as founders and stakeholders of Indian internet-enabled start-ups.

Each of us set out on this entrepreneurial journey dreaming of creating world-leading companies from India. There is no reason why an Indian company cannot be the next Google, Facebook or Amazon. We know that you share our dream; you put it into words: Make in India.

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 market. The Internet gives us all the potential to do that.

But for these dreams to come true, we need an open Internet.

Preserving the Start-up Ecosystem

The Internet 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 internet-enabled start-ups or online service providers had to first obtain a government license, or pay each Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the world-there are tens of thousands of them-this global market and competition, and the innovation and progress, would all disappear.

This is what we stand to lose if ISPs-which includes, now, telecom operators-are allowed to strike deals that favour some online services over their competitors, or worse, accept payment from companies to make their competitors' websites inaccessible, slower or more expensive to access than their own.

These practices, if allowed, will prevent promising start-ups from using 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 start-ups 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. The rest will have to shut shop.

This would be a catastrophic for our budding start-up 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 need and demand for Internet access. No poor person will begin to use the Internet just because access is cheap or even free. She would find no use for content that is not relevant to her needs; even less so when that content is in foreign languages.

This content will not be created by the large western companies that dominate the Internet today, but by Indian start-ups 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 products best fill these needs is a decision for each user to make; not for a corporate gatekeeper to decide.

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

Where is the money?

Cellular operators claim that providing internet access is not profitable enough to expand infrastructure. This claim contradicts their own annual reports. If that was not enough evidence, the fact that they haven't increased prices and continue to advertise their internet plans heavily demonstrates that these claims are untrue.

Moreover, as consumer demand rises, the profitable market for services delivered via the Internet will drive expansion in infrastructure.

Zero Rating is Harmful Discrimination

Some telecom operators and large foreign companies try to pit the idea of a Digital India against the principle of an 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. The handful of sites that they offer in their packages-a few dozen at most-is a mere sliver of the over 100 crore websites that the Internet currently offers. As to inluding the poor, the sites in these "free" offerings are primarily aimed at luring away the primarily middle-class customers of their competitors rather than the poor or those who currently lack access.

Some argue that even with these flaws a few bundled websites are better than none. Quite the contrary: permitting these plans will cause serious harm. Proprietary alternatives to the public Internet will only slow down Internet adoption and delay Digital India. It must also 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 services-those that the ISPs have relationships with-resulting in a decline in quality of service and progress.

There are other ways to bring new Internet users gently into the net without losing money. To suggest just one example: free-to-the-end-user bundles that are supported by advertising, similar to what the television industry does. Such plans leave it to the user to decide how his Internet plan is used, which is a powerful incentive to start-ups to provide services that benefit the novice and the disadvantaged.

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.Neutrality is already being violated

Some telecom companies have shown scant respect for the issues presently under consideration by TRAI. In legally questionable moves, they have rolled out various services which violate network neutrality, apparently confident that they can do so without repercussions.

This is not only an affront to the Internet users in India but also to the regulatory powers of the TRAI. Forming regulations will take time. In the meanwhile, the Indian Internet user must be protected.

In the absence of formal regulations on net neutrality, TRAI should issue an interim order or regulation preventing ongoing network neutrality violations by telecom service providers.

The Way Forward

We urge our government to 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 prioritisation, toll-gating and others. We also hope that the regressive proposal to license online services will be dropped.

We request TRAI to publish all the responses and counter-responses to the consultation, including any other additional material, on its website.

For better public involvement and awareness, we request that open-house debates be held in major Indian cities after the consultation process is over.

We, the start-ups that are at the forefront of creating Digital India, request you to take action now. We need you to protect our nation's innovation ecosystem.

Best regards,

(Signatures below)

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