As governments around the world rush to deploy digital tools against Covid-19, it is evident that several of the assumptions around internet rights and governance are being overlooked. While privacy risks have garnered significant attention, we must not lose sight of other fundamental issues that govern the functioning of the internet. Regulators around the world are reevaluating rules related to bandwidth and net neutrality amid the pandemic.
The Cellular Operators Association of India requested that the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) allow telecom operators to zero-rate websites that contain content related to Covid-19. Such websites are India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, World Health Organization (WHO), and few other dashboards that are run by private entities.
Another milestone can be seen in India’s major video streaming services with companies having reduced their bit rate to a standardized definition after a request from the (COAI). This led to the overall burden reduction on India’s internet infrastructure.
Some complications arise here. While it is critical for governments to prioritize information during the times of a pandemic, there are other non-government websites that people use to access and share reliable information. More deliberation is needed to pinpoint the list of websites that the COAI will allow to be zero-rated.
Another issue relates to the period of time the zero-rating will apply. This is crucial because there is no set date for when the pandemic will be over, so how long will this policy apply and how might it evolve?
Telcos argue that the enforcement of net neutrality should be industry led and there is no need for a multi-stakeholder governance since ensuring net neutrality is a part of telcos license conditions.
While it is widely considered that India has the strongest net neutrality policies, the debate is far from over. And as we continue battling an ongoing pandemic, we wonder how net neutrality will impact citizens.