The prime minister’s visit to the Silicon Valley unfortunately is being projected by a section of internet enthusiasts and some sections of the media (including social media users) solely as a sell-out to Facebook and its truncated and limited access programme called the internet.org (now renamed Free Basics). This interpretation is simply an insult to the intelligence of the prime minister and his team.
This team has been sensitive to internet users and internet companies: in the last one year alone, the government has allowed the withdrawal of Section 66A and reading down of Section 79 by the Supreme Court almost unopposed; taken a firm stand on multi-stakeholders in internet governance, hastily withdrawn a shoddy porn ban and an encryption policy. These have reassured net users and consumer internet firms that while faulty policies can be made sometimes, there are people in this government who understand what the internet needs in order to grow, and also have a close reading of popular opinion.
It is, therefore, quite an immature view to suggest somehow that Facebook laid a trap and an unsuspecting or a conniving PM walked into it, thereby compromising on the issue of net neutrality.
The larger purpose of Modi’s visit was to garner support of large tech companies for the Digital India programme and to encourage them to invest in it. As in all investment-related missions, he must have heard patiently and even sympathetically to the ‘conditions’ of each of the potential investors. I can safely assume that Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco, Google and others whom Modi met would have used the opportunity to say, ‘we will invest, but....’
It does not mean that the PM will return and hurriedly convert those conditions into policy. Policymaking does not work like that simply because many of these conditions would be contradicting each other. It cannot work like that because the best interests of users have to be taken into consideration; and each condition has to pass the test of maximum positive impact. Interestingly, the PM also interacted with 35 large Indian startups being showcased in the valley and presumably heard from them on the issue of net neutrality and on conditions for creating a startup ecosystem in India!
Moreover, the government has already drawn the outline of the net neutrality policy after an intense debate since March this year. The telecom department has in a paper made clear-cut suggestions: regulation of local VoIP; freedom to telcos to optimise networks; and internet companies not acting as gatekeepers. Internet user groups and some industry bodies have in their response made it clear that a) no form of VoIP should be regulated, b) optimisation of networks should not be misused by telcos and c) like large internet firms, telcos too should not be allowed to be gatekeepers. These feedbacks would determine the net neutrality policy rather than a single semi-social meeting with Facebook!
In my view, in addition to investments, PM Modi is perhaps genuinely concerned about bringing the 800 million unconnected Indians into the online universe and is keen to understand how this can be achieved quickly through private sector initiatives. It is time that consumer internet companies came together and figured out how to provide ‘access to’ all without compromising the basic principles of net neutrality.
Finally, my humble submission to the PM: next time, please have a ‘townhall’ with Indian startups in India; they do know a lot about building a startup ecosystem.
(Views are personal)
Subho Ray is president, IAMAI