A Constitutional Right against Free Basics? The Link between Article 19 and Zero Rating

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The past month has witnessed a rise in tide of public debate surrounding net neutrality once more, accompanying the release of another Consultation Paper by TRAI, and another AIB video urging public participation in the ongoing consultation process. To add to this mix there has also been an effort from Facebook to build consensus amongst its userbase regarding the effect of ‘Free Basics’ on net neutrality. The crux of one set of arguments put forth in these debates consists of the harm that a differentially priced platform can cause to competition in the market for Internet applications, along with the related concern of monopolization of a section of the country’s userbase. The other side places emphasis on the need to increase the accessibility of the Internet, and both have disagreements as to the interpretation of the term ‘net neutrality’.

An important issue that gets missed out in the rhetoric is the Fundamental right of Internet users to access a diverse set of media sources on any given platform whose nature is that of a public utility. Media diversity implies that the information stream reaching the public through any public medium must be prevented from being unduly influenced by one or a few entities with a controlling effect on the market for these media content providers. It also rules against any role for the carriers of content (known usually as intermediaries or service providers) in choosing whose or what kind of content is allowed on the medium. The usage and allocation of the medium as a public resource is subject to certain Constitutional principles as well, and these are also ignored while discussing how to regulate (or not) Internet-related services in India.

The Right to be Informed

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but this right also includes the right of citizens to a plural media. As discussed by the Supreme Court in Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Association of Bengal, the debate and opinions sought to be protected by Article 19 need to be informed by a plurality of views and an ‘aware citizenry’. What does this mean for regulation of access to the Internet? It translates into ensuring the possibility of a wide array of options in terms of media consumer choices being made available to the public. Any communication platform cannot remain restricted in its control by one or a few parties. This restricts the nature of the content available through that media, leading to narrowing of the ideas views available to citizens on any public platform.

It is far from difficult to balance this concern with the free market. The principle encourages a competitive atmosphere between content providers, and seeks to avoid a situation where there is a disproportionately dominant player in the market exerting undue influence over the functioning of that market. The presence of a single or few dominant entity(ies) enjoying a magnified impact on the market makes it difficult for newer entrants to make a dent in the market-share of the dominant player, thus reducing the possibility of any competition being provided by these smaller players.

This Constitutional requirement comes in conflict with the concept of zero-rated plans at its core: can we really have a telecom company deciding the exact specific pieces of content that we receive in preference to all other content? Are we willing to hand them this power of shaping consumer choice, public access and opinion simply by choosing the right business partners? If we can conclusively answer these questions in the affirmative, zero-rating plans would have no quarrel with Article 19. Indeed, such an affirmation would even successfully dispense with one of the core tenants of the idea of net neutrality – that all data be treated in the same manner irrespective of its content.

Spectrum as a Public Resource

The Cricket Association of Bengal judgment also discusses the regulation of spectrum as a public resource. This is arguably an even more fundamental question, addressing the question of what qualifies as legitimate usage and allocation of spectrum. The Court characterized airwaves as a scarce public resource, which ought to be used in the best interests of the public, and in a manner that prevents any infractions on their rights. Justice Reddy’s opinion in the judgment even acknowledges the requirement of media plurality as part of the required policy approach for regulating spectrum.

Another SC judgment arguing in a similar vein, Association of Unified Tele Services Providers & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., ruled that the State is bound to use spectrum resources solely for the enjoyment of the general public. Applying the public trust doctrine, it explained that the resources are prohibited from being used or transferred for any kind of private or commercial interest.

What the available jurisprudence effectively lays down can be encapsulated in the following: Spectrum is a public resource that can only be used and/or allocated by the state for general public benefit, and cannot be used in any manner for private or commercial interests. This public interest contains various concerns, one of them being the right to a diverse set of media content sources, so as to avoid interested parties having any kind of power or control over the content available to consumers. What this means for the State is that spectrum must be used in order to maximise the variety of media available to end-users and prohibit control over the medium of transmission being controlled by a single or few player(s).

This creates a tricky situation for TRAI, who have asked for public comments on the desirability of differential pricing in data services. There is a glaring lack of clarity on the exact mandate provided to the state regarding how to use spectrum resources to achieve TRAI’s officially cited objective of providing ‘free’ Internet access to consumers. Without discussion focusing on the exact nature of what we want to achieve, we will continue to be forced take reactionary positions regarding most issues and developments. Forming a concrete policy to connect India’s billion can only get a whole lot easier once we are able to agree upon a common goal and a set of principles regarding how to get there.

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Image Credit: Everybody Loves Eric Raymond: http://geekz.co.uk/lovesraymond/

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