Indian regulator TRAI has claimed that Bharti Airtel’s new service Airtel Zero contravenes the country’s net neutrality principles.
The pronouncement is a further setback for Airtel Zero. Earlier this week the retailer FlipKart withdrew its support for the zero-rating service following sustained pressure from net neutrality campaigners.
However, Bharti Airtel was not TRAI’s only target. Reliance Communications was deemed to have violated the same principles for offering zero-rated Facebook access in conjunction with Internet.org.
Many of India’s service providers - including Idea Cellular, Tata Teleservices and Uninor – offer free or discounted access to certain apps, and this practice is due to be reviewed by TRAI. The regulator has also called for the submission of comments from the public to inform the development of policies focussed on net neutrality.
Airtel has staunchly defended its new service, claiming that it is an open platform that benefits app developers by allowing customers to try their product free of charge. The operator maintains that Airtel Zero does not contravene net neutrality principles.
Similarly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has denied accusations that Internet.org violates the concept, stating in a blog post that: "We are fully committed to it. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.”
However, several Indian firms including Cleartrip, NDTV, Newshunt and the Times Grouphave all withdrawn from Internet.org.Whether their concern stems from violating the law or public backlash, their decisions represent a setback for the initiative.
Zero-rating arrangements have become fairly common in emerging markets, but with net neutrality becoming a hot-button issue, the practice may be set for a decline. However, Zuckerberg insisted that Internet.org was a non-discriminatory environment, saying: “Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes –and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining.”
“Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide,” he concluded.