Net Neutrality in India: Missionary Zeal v. Zero-Rating

Comedians Press for Net Neutrality

Comedians Press for Net Neutrality

Internet policy in general and net neutrality in particular isn’t limited to the United States, of course. The first nation to pass a net neutrality law was Chile, and technically the US has never had one, although that will change when the FCC’s fourth attempt at enacting net neutrality becomes official in a couple of months. Netherlands and Brazil have followed Chile, while most of the world is taking a wait-and-see approach.

One of the more lively national debates over net neutrality is now taking place in India, a nation with which I have more than a passing familiarity; in the late 1980s I co-founded the first export software business in the South Indian state of Kerala. Kerala is just south of Karnataka, the home of Bangalore, India’s most vibrant tech center, but it has never found much favor with business because of the state’s unfortunate tendency to elect Marxist governments. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense: in 1957, Kerala became the first jurisdiction in the world to freely elect a communist government. The security guards who checked us for contraband as we entered and left the Cochin Export Processing Zone (now part of the Cochin Special Economic Zone) did so under a hammer and sickle flag. Conditions were less than ideal, but I was a fan of Indian philosophy and culture.

The Indian debate over net neutrality mimics the US debate of the past year: The high born urban elites are in favor of it, shameless comedians are attacking straw man caricatures to the effect that ISPs are out to carve the Internet into packages of content resembling cable TV tiers, and the innocuous zero-rating plans that would provide the rural poor with low-cost access to parts of the web are under attack. Some firms are even exiting Facebook’s (an initiative to bring Internet service to the rural poor) in order to preserve their image as friends of the Internet.

Chile stumbled on zero rating because of its net neutrality law as well; the regulator banned it and America’s net neutrality purists have denounced it as “pernicious” and worse. Zero-rating is a practice that allows entry-level Internet users to access parts of the Internet, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, without having a data plan. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always a “pay to play” system because neither Facebook nor Wikipedia pays fees for free access by users. Facebook has simply convinced carriers that giving users a free taste of part of the Internet will encourage many to pay for unfettered data plans. Wikipedia simply comes along for the ride.

For historical reasons, I’m surprised that Indians would oppose zero-rating, but I probably have a different take in India’s history than the Bangalore hipsters do. My first awareness of India came from reading about the speech that Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda gave to the Parliament on World Religions in Chicago in 1893. The Swami arrived in Chicago penniless and starving, but he managed to deliver one of the most inspirational speeches in history on the plight of India. It begins with a plea for help:

Christians must always be ready for good criticism, and I hardly think that you will mind if I make a little criticism. You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen–why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the East is not religion–they have religion enough–but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats. They ask us for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics. In India a priest that preached for money would lose caste and be spat upon by the people. I came here to seek aid for my impoverished people, and I fully realised how difficult it was to get help for heathens from Christians in a Christian land.

The parallel to zero-rating is obvious, at least to me: In modern India, as in other less-developed nations, the rural poor have very poor access to the Internet and a very limited ability to pay for more. For many, the cell phone is the first and only modern communication mechanism they’ve ever had. Landline phones were always expensive and hard to come by in India as recently as the 1990s, when it was common to take a bus to an India Post and Telegraph office to make a phone call. Government was unable to meet the communication needs of the poor, but privately owned cellular services have done miracles.

When net neutrality advocates in India denounce zero-rating starter plans as violations of net neutrality they’re clearly arguing that the principle of net neutrality – the religion, if you will – is more important than the practical benefit of zero-rating. I believe Swami Vivekananda would probably disagree, and he was no enemy of technology.

The underlying dynamic in India’s net neutrality debate appears to derive from the discomfort urban elites in the developing world have for their poor relations in the villages. For all practical purposes, the urban rich live the same lives we live in the developed world: they have cars and air conditioned apartments, they converse in English, read American and English books, watch American films and listen to American music and know as much about American politics, culture, and celebrities as most of us do, if not more. They would simply prefer not to think about the villagers, many of which are illiterate, unschooled, and superstitious.

While this appears callous, it’s so common in the developing world that it’s practically a necessity. India’s economy is developing as policy has moved past protectionism and Cambridge socialism to more liberal free market approaches, but progress is faster in the cities than in the hinterlands. The gap between rich and poor is a destabilizer, so it’s unwise for politicians to disregard the need for rural development.

There is, obviously, also a gap between urban and rural broadband quality in the US: urban markets are competitive and constantly advancing, while rural ones move at a slower pace. We address this gap with subsidies for rural telecoms, but our subsidy programs still emphasize plain old telephone service instead of mobile broadband so we’re not without shame either, but the rural broadband gap in India is even larger than ours.

It’s too soon to say how the controversy in India will work itself out, but I don’t see a rosy outcome for the rural poor. It’s certainly an issue I’ll be following.