The launch of Airtel Zero has landed the telco in a veritable ocean of trouble. Officially announced in the first week of April under the promise of it being a “win-win platform for customers and marketers, Zero’s launch has been fraught with troubles from day one.
The outrage against Airtel has been more vocal and this is not even the first time the telco has skirted the dangerous edge of net neutrality infringement. The anger reached a crescendo when news leaked out that Flipkart was planning to get onto the platform. Tweets were sent as were Facebook posts against Airtel and Flipkart, memes were created and shared on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. AIB made a video on freedom of the internet, which went viral. Even the personification of the nation’s collective conscience, Arnab Goswami, held a NewsHour debate on the subject.
The end result —Flipkart backed away from the deal faster than if it was a spitting cobra, Airtel deigned to take the trouble to write a lengthy reply outlining its position with respect to net neutrality and clarifying, what it said, were ‘myths’ around Airtel Zero and net neutrality.
The internet pronounced it a victory and people are now going back to their daily life, while those active on social media have probably found something else to raise an outrage over. However, the battle for internet freedom is far from over and it is not cynical to assume that the larger issue of neutrality still remains an enigma to the majority.
Does Airtel Zero deserve the backlash?
The official launch press statement for Airtel Zero calls it a ‘compelling marketing tool for marketers where app providers pay for customers’ data charges, giving customers toll-free access to their mobile application. What it basically means that instead of customers, the telco will bill the app owner for data consumption. The idea, Airtel would have us believe, is to generate interest from dormant consumers, who might be put off by data prices otherwise.
It is not that radical an idea and has been used in slightly different guises in different countries. In India itself, kind of similar partnerships have been seen in the past, some instances include, Facebook & WhatsApp-Uninor, Twitter-Vodafone, Wikipedia-Aircel, etc. In all these instances, the principle of net neutrality; that all services on the internet should be treated equally, was also ignored, but we hardly saw a the same intensity of outrage in these instances. When Facebook launched Internet.org earlier this year in partnership with Reliance, apart from a very few, no one really raised an eyebrow on what is basically an attempt to create a private version or an independent gateway to the internet.
Is Airtel Zero any worse than earlier telco-internet company partnerships or Internet.org or even Airtel’s One Touch internet service? This is a question that the internet should ask itself. On one hand you have a platform that makes app owners pay for data traffic of their consumers; on the other a version of the internet that does not include any competitor services or a one-on-one partnership that seeks to promote one particular service over others. The outrage in India does not seem to have been proportional to the level of transgression.
This does not mean that Airtel Zero is completely innocent. Did it deserve the lashing out it got? The answer to this question lies in which tenets of net neutrality is the company charged with breaching. One of the basic principles is that no services and destinations on the internet will receive preferential treatment. The worry is that telcos, with their power to influence data traffic and speeds can quite literally strangle a service provider that does not toe the line; this is allegedly what happened in the US between Netflix and Comcast.
Even if it is not a case of a direct choking of traffic, there is the threat that a telecom service provider or TSL, by having partnerships will individual companies will provide better data service to those paying up. This will lead to the creation of “highways” and “superhighways”, one for the paying app developer/service provider and another for everyone else. This is almost as detrimental to internet freedom as a direct slowing down of speeds. Even more importantly, it sets a dangerous precedent for the future.
The issue is not about net neutrality but lack of trust in telcos
The Indian telecom market is one where customers are generally suspicious of telcos, whether it is about tariff rates or service quality. It is a situation that is of their (telcos) own making and hence it is not surprising that initiatives like Zero are on the receiving end of such backlash. It is a question of trusting a telco that it will be responsible; a trust that is generally lacking.
Airtel might be completely right when it says that Zero does not go against net neutrality but what it does is hand the power to promote partner apps to its customers and until our telcos show that they can be worthy of our trust, outrages like these will continue. The backlash against Airtel Zero is not so much about as free internet as it is against the perception that our telecom operators are not seen as fair, inclusive and free of avarice. On the flipside, the Indian internet audience also needs to realize that the issue of net neutrality is much wider than what is currently understood and then make informed decisions.
Airtel argues that Airtel Zero does not show any preferential treatment and that all app owners, whether they are a part of the platform or not, will be treated the same. But by ‘promoting’ some apps and not others; Airtel is upsetting the level playing field that currently exists on the internet. And though it might say that around 150 small time developers have showed interest on the platform, the telco had not replied to an email asking them to name some of these developers. Neither was an answer forthcoming on how app developers will pay for being on the platform—will it be only for data consumed by users who come to their app or will it be a subscription model. Neither is it known whether the charge will be same for all developers.
Over here, it is fair to note that Srini Gopalan, Director (Consumer Business) of Bharti Airtel had this to say on data charges and how smaller start-ups will be affected, “Today, when a consumer downloads a new app and uses it for a day, the total amount of data consumed is roughly about 20-30 MB. Assuming a price of Rs 1/MB of free data, this will translate to Rs 20 for the start-up. Compared to this, the average cost of marketing digitally through large media/ internet companies is about Rs 50 to 300 per download. So, this platform will actually make it cheaper for small companies to gain distribution as well as visibility.”
Some consumers, especially those not caught up with the net neutrality debate, might argue that at the end of the day it is about giving more power to the consumer and app developers need to take advantage of these platforms to remain competitive. Even Airtel argues that Zero is just a marketing platform for app owners and service providers. This is a valid argument but this is considering that a telco will keep their charges equal and reasonable and till the time there is no transparency in the pricing, people will believe in the worst case scenario.