It was a major win of netizens as e-commerce giants Flipkart opted out of the Airtel Zero platform. Explaining their decision, Flipkart CEO Mukesh Bansal told NDTV: ‘We looked into zero-rating program deeply, and we felt that in the long term it can lead to violation of the spirit of net neutrality. As a company, we very deeply believe in the principles of net neutrality. That [net neutrality] is one of the big reasons why e-commerce has grown in the country as much as it has, though it has a long way to go.’ He added: ‘So, for us, it’s very important to make sure that Internet grows in a manner where it is democratic, equally accessible, and [with] absolutely no discrimination of any kind. Driven from those principles and beliefs, we decided to back out of this program.’

He also said while describing net neutrality: ‘It’s a complex subject with a lot of ramifications, and it took us some time to understand what it means for our consumers, but in the end we took the decision that’s right for the future of Internet in the country as well as our consumers.’ (Also Read: Open Letter to TRAI by Aaditya Thackeray; lets them know #IndiaWantsNetNeutrality)

‘We would like to see a day where the Internet is available to every Indian, and we also continue to support programs that makes it easy and affordable to access Internet for all activities. So it was really from that lens we were evaluating where it [Airtel Zero] can serve a larger purpose, without violating net neutrality.’

‘I understand the intent behind zero-rating and there’s a case to be made why it will make it easier for a lot of people to access Internet for the first time,’ said Bansal. ‘But then there are other ways in which zero-rating can evolve, which can make possibly make it discriminatory, or, unaffordable for smaller companies, or make the data more expensive, and from that perspective, it certainly violates the spirit of net neutrality; and [that’s] the primary reason why we are choosing to not opt-in [to Airtel Zero].’

What was Airtel Zero?

Airtel Zero is a new platform which would come with some pre-loaded services (but now definitely without Flipkart). Interestingly, another Flipkart co-founder, Sachin Bansal had gone on Twitter to defend Airtel Zero and claim it didn’t violate net neutrality. (Also Read #IndiaWantsNetNeutrality: Save the Internet; boycott crony capitalists instead)

He had tweeted: ‘I’m for #NetNeutrality. I spend time/money helping start-ups in India. Will never support things which suffocate innovation 0 rated apps for limited time doesn’t go against #NetNeutrality. Costs/competition are very high. Can’t be sustained for long. 0-rating only reduces data costs for users. Fears of a telecom big brother emerging are unfounded. Choice wins. Always.’

To be fair, this was like Hitler saying: ‘Listen folks we might have booked a couple of rooms in this new concentration camp, but we have always supported equality for all races, it’s just that we don’t have too much food so we can’t sustain everyone for too long. And fears of a Big Brotherly government are unfound, at the end of the day, choice wins.’

What is net neutrality?

Over the last few weeks, the fight for net neutrality has united all Indians with opposable thumbs, irrespective of their political leaning, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. AIB even took a hiatus from their hiatus to make a video on it and even The Times of India (even though they are violating the NN principle by being part of Facebook/Reliance’s Internet.org) actually featured the story on their first page (after all the ads of course). When TOI, decides to feature something that is not an actress’s cleavage or the latest gossip from ‘unnamed sources’ you know it’s an important issue!

According to Wikipedia, ‘net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.’ So basically, the idea is that the internet should remain equal, and we should continue to use it the way we choose if we’re paying the initial fees.

Why is net neutrality important?

The internet is the greatest leveller of them all. So whether it’s a cat meme, the latest sexist joke about Sunny Leone or a long in-depth piece one on how Modi’s scarf is defining India’s foreign policy, all content on the internet is theoretically considered equal. Anyone who’s anyone can start a website or express their view. No other medium allows this freedom. It’s this independence that has allowed people to create businesses like Google, Facebook, Twitter and thousands of other services.

Now imagine a world, where Facebook decided, it wanted to kill any potential start-up which might become the next big social media site. Actually, FB already has with its Internet.org platform, which is brought to us by Reliance and is available in six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana) which allow access to three dozen services.

The full list of free services includes:

  • Aaj Tak – Read news in Hindi
  • AccuWeather – Get updated weather information
  • amarujala.com – Read news in Hindi
  • AP Speaks – Engage with local government
  • Babajob – Search for jobs
  • BabyCenter & MAMA – Learn about pregnancy and children
  • BBC News – Read news from around the world
  • Bing Search – Find information
  • Cleartrip – Check train and flight schedules & buy tickets
  • Daily Bhaskar – Read local news
  • Dictionary.com – Search for meanings of words
  • ESPN Cricinfo – Get cricket updates
  • Facebook – Communicate with friends and family
  • Facts for Life – Find health and hygiene information
  • Girl Effect – Read articles and tips for girls
  • HungamaPlay – Listen to music
  • IBNLive – Read news
  • iLearn – Learn from Women Entrepreneurs
  • India Today – Read local news
  • Internet Basics – Learn about the basics of the Internet
  • Jagran – Read local news
  • Jagran Josh – Get education and career information
  • Maalai Malar – Read news in Tamil
  • Maharashtra Times – Read news in Marathi
  • Malaria No More – Learn about malaria
  • manoramanews.com – Read local news
  • Messenger – Send messages to friends and family
  • NDTV – Read news
  • Newshunt – Read news in English
  • OLX – Buy and sell products and services
  • Reliance Astrology – Read your horoscope
  • Reuters Market Lite – Get farming and crop information
  • Socialblood – Register to donate blood
  • Times of India – Read news
  • TimesJobs – Search for jobs
  • Translator – Translate words and phrases
  • Wikipedia – Find information
  • wikiHow – Find information

Reliance customers in India can access these services in the Internet.org Android app, at www.internet.org, from the start screen of the Opera Mini mobile web browser, and using the Android app UC Browser for Internet.org.

Most of the services will be available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi. Now on paper, while this looks like a brilliant plan to bring the internet to everyone here are things you need to question – why have pre-loaded services? For example, why should TOI and NDTV be there and not the other news websites? Or why should it have Hungama Play and no Gaana.com? Why should there be Bing but no Google? And why should it only be there on Reliance networks?  One could argue that since Reliance and Facebook are willing to pay for this (and the companies mentioned here are willing to fork out the money) it’s a fair deal.

But this is not really a solution for the poor, what they are basically doing is giving people their particular version of the internet. There was a similar debate in the US when ISPs decided to permit some channels the chance to provide a faster track to send content, which would mean that some content from some sites would be available faster than others. There was a huge debate which finally saw net neutrality win.

Here’s John Oliver explaining the entire debate on his show: Last Week Tonight

So what now?

 Writing for dna, Marco D’Souza best sums it up by saying: ‘The ball is clearly in the TRAI court as the deadlines to weigh in on the net neutrality issue approach. But until then, we cannot afford to let down our guard. We must always be on the lookout for any sign of transgression to our digital and online rights, as there are bound to be many.’ Your move Airtel and TRAI.