A Response to #airtelpledge

On April 18th, Airtel sent a letter, called #airtelpledge (read), to all its employees and all its postpaid users, making some claims and promises about Airtel Zero. We’re addressing a few claims made in the letter here:

  1. Airtel said that it is committed to Net Neutrality. However, Airtel cannot be committed to Net Neutrality while simultaneously violating it. The TRAI consultation paper (read) itself says on page 77:

    “In other words, NN implies that there cannot be any price discrimination between suppliers of content and also among the customers that access such content.”

    And on Page 98:

    “Airtel’s intended differential pricing for VoIP is an example of price discrimination.”

    In the same way, differential pricing for different sites, with some sites costing Zero, and others not, is an example of a Net Neutrality violation. The TRAI says so too (read). Airtel needs to clarify how it can be committed to Net Neutrality while violating it.

  2. There is something factually incorrect about the statement “No blocking, No fast lanes. Never done it. Never will. #airtelpledge”. For the Indian Premier League in 2010, Airtel had provided a fast lane to users accessing YouTube, increasing their speed to 2 Mbps. Read about it here. Two years later, the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) reported that Airtel and other ISPs had been throttling BitTorrent traffic in India for years (read). If Airtel says that it will not block and not provide fast or slow lanes in the future, then there should be a mechanism holding it accountable to that pledge.

  3. Airtel Zero says that every Indian has the right to be on the Internet. We agree with that. However, Airtel Zero is not the Internet. Even if it has 10,000 websites paying Airtel, those 10,000 sites cannot replace the millions that comprise of the Internet. So, even though Airtel says that “We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the internet, they will join the digital revolution”, we’re afraid that those users will get limited access, and every time they try and go out of Airtel Zero, they stop, because they will get a message that says that they cannot view the world wide web unless they buy a data pack. The best case scenario here is that they will be (rightly) warned that they will be charged per kb for going out of Airtel Zero. If that happens, they will be less likely to jump the fence around Airtel Zero, and experience the rest of the web. Since this would be the first time a lot of these people maybe accessing the internet, this amounts to those people being denied the knowledge of what their choices are, leave apart the right to choose.

  4. We’re also concerned that Airtel Zero will slice the Internet: There might be an Idea Zero, Vodafone Zero, Aircel Zero, Uninor Zero, Tata Docomo Zero. This means that each user will get a different experience of websites, and may never know the universe outside of this collection of websites. That restricts consumer choice. Zero rating is “positive discrimination”. Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founding fathers of the Internet as we know it, wrote in February that Net Neutrality is “also about stopping 'positive discrimination', such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators.”
    Airtel Zero favors those services who pay them to be zero rated.
  5. Airtel Zero changes the way the we access information via the Internet. The web was created as an open platform, where anyone could set up and host their site anywhere, and be available across the globe. This is why sites hosted in India are available across the globe. Websites don’t tie up with and pay each telecom operator and ISPs in each country (hundreds across the world) so that consumers can access these sites. If the next 200 million users in India are on Airtel Zero, startups and other companies will have to choose between ignoring these customers or tying up with multiple Indian telecom operators. Historically, telecom operators have co-ordinated when negotiating rates with content owners (read)
  6. Airtel is incorrect when it says that Airtel Zero is like a toll free number. Here is why:

    • A toll free voice service is a support mechanism for most businesses, and not the sole entry point for the business like an app or a website. An Internet company has 100% dependency on Internet access providers and telecom providers, while that is not the case with most companies that use toll free voice services. This leaves room for potential abuse, in case of differential pricing, manipulation of access speeds, or monopolistic hiking of rates, like in case of carriage fees in Cable TV. Read what happened in Cable TV in India (here).

    • A toll free voice service isn’t the mode of delivery for the service itself: it’s a mode of information, and rarely, a mode of transaction. In case of the Internet, all delivery of content and communications takes place over the access mechanism, and all transactions take place via the access for ecommerce companies.

    • Providers of toll free voice services do not compete with their customers. However, in case of the Internet, telecom operators have launched competing services. For example, Airtel’s Wynk is a music streaming service which has plans that come bundled with free data, while, at the time of launch, its competitors did not have that option. This is a cross-media ownership issue, where the carriage mechanism also owns content, and can abuse its position of controlling access.
    • Once one startup joins, because of high dependency, competitive pressure ensures that others also join. When Flipkart allegedly joined Airtel Zero, its competitors began examining that option. Times Internet has said that most of its publication businesses will not exit Internet.org unless their competitors also do so: no one will risk being the first to leave if competing sites are around.
  7. Airtel Zero is not a marketing expense, it’s an access fee. It shifts the model of the Internet from a situation where a consumer pays Airtel to access whatever she wants, with the whole Internet being accessible, to where a company pays to allow its app or service to be accessible to Zero users, and access to the rest being limited.
    While it may be seen as an optional marketing expense to begin with, once one company comes on board, its competitors will also be forced to join. They will be locked in. Startups that wish to compete with zero-rated companies will have to raise money separately. Today, they can choose not to spend on marketing, and student startups can grow purely on the basis of their product and consumers sharing it. In a fenced-in Airtel Zero, that virality will not exist, and it will become a compulsory cost as an access fee. Airtel Zero is not a marketing expense.

    If companies paid the same rates as users, there would be no business model in Airtel Zero. The rates will necessarily be much higher, and companies that pay will eventually pass on the burden to consumers. Airtel Zero will increase costs for everyone with only Airtel benefitting.

    To sum it up, Airtel Zero changes the way the Internet works by reducing consumer choice by fencing them in, making Internet companies dependent on telecom operators for discovery and access of their services. The Internet model isn’t broken, and has grown on the basis of the principles of neutrality and openness. We have no reason to change this model, and to allow telecom operators to discriminate in terms of how and what we access will end up only empowering telecom operators, not citizens. Digital India is meant to empower citizens, not telecom operators.