India’s telecom commission on Wednesday approved net neutrality rules recommended by the country’s telecom regulator.
This means that internet service providers in India will not be allowed to artificially slow down or speed up some websites or services over others or provide zero-rating — the practice of excluding certain video streaming or music services from customers’ data caps.
Some services, such as remote surgery over the internet and internet-connected autonomous vehicles, among others, are exempt, but violating the rules for all other services would put internet service providers at risk of losing their license.
Net neutrality means that internet service providers should treat all data — video, audio, text, images, and more — passing through their networks equally without favoring particular kinds of content over others.
Consumer advocacy groups and activists around the world have long argued that net neutrality is crucial for an open internet. Without it, an internet service provider like Comcast, for instance, could strike a deal with Netflix to make sure that Netflix videos load faster on its network than videos from other services, effectively killing off any competition.
Enforcing net neutrality rules is a significant win for India's 1.3 billion people. Nearly half of the country's population has internet access, and a drop in smartphone and data prices is making getting online easier for the other half.
The country is a large and important market for most Silicon Valley tech companies that are counting on it for growth after saturating developed markets like the US and the UK.
India’s fight to protect net neutrality began in 2015, when activists and privacy advocates mobilized the country’s internet users against Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program, which offered free access to a handful of websites — including Facebook — to Indians. Under pressure from thousands of citizens, the country’s telecom regulator banned zero-rating, effectively killing Free Basics in the country.
When the regulator proposed the current rules favoring net neutrality in India in November 2017, the BBC called them "the world’s most progressive policy on equal internet access for all."
India’s move contrasts sharply with the United States' decision, which consisted of the Federal Communications Commission voting at the end of 2017 to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules.
The repeal went into effect last month, which means that internet service providers in the US can now charge customers a premium for providing high-quality video streaming, for instance, or make certain websites load faster than others.
To push back against the FCC’s repeal, some states in the US have introduced their own bills to protect net neutrality, the most prominent of which is the one that’s currently moving through the California legislature.