Yesterday, the Telecom and Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016. These regulations prohibit Telecom Service Providers from charging different tariffs from consumers for accessing different services online. A lot of debate has taken place around network (net) neutrality in India, in the past few months. This blog post seeks to present an overview of the developments around net neutrality in India, and perspectives of various stakeholders. Who are the different stakeholders in the internet space? To understand the concept of net neutrality, it is important to note the four different kinds of stakeholders in the internet space that may be affected by the issue. They are: (i) the consumers of any internet service, (ii) the Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) or Internet Service Providers (ISPs), (iii) the over-the-top (OTT) service providers (those who provide internet access services such as websites and applications), and (iv) the government, who may regulate and define relationships between these players. TRAI is an independent regulator in the telecom sector, which mainly regulates TSPs and their licensing conditions, etc., What is net neutrality? The principle of net neutrality states that internet users should be able to access all content on the internet without being discriminated by TSPs. This means that (i) all websites or applications should be treated equally by TSPs, (ii) all applications should be allowed to be accessed at the same internet speed, and (iii) all applications should be accessible for the same cost. The 2016 regulations that TRAI has released largely deal with the third aspect of net neutrality, relating to cost. What are OTT services? OTT services and applications are basically online content. These are accessible over the internet and made available on the network offered by TSPs. OTT providers may be hosted by TSPs or ISPs such as Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, VSNL (government provided), etc. They offer internet access services such as Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google and so on. Therefore, OTT services can broadly be of three types: (i) e-commerce, (ii) video or music streaming and, (iii) voice over internet telephony/protocol services (or VoIP communication services that allow calls and messages). Prior to the recent TRAI regulations prohibiting discriminatory tariffs, there was no specific law or regulation directly concerning the services provided by OTT service providers. How is net neutrality regulated? Until now, net neutrality has not directly been regulated in India by any law or policy framework. Over the last year, there have been some developments with respect to the formulation of a net neutrality policy. TRAI had invited comments on consultation papers on Differential Pricing for Data Services as well as Regulatory Framework for Over-The-Top Services (OTT).[i],[ii] A Committee set up by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had also examined the issue of net neutrality.[iii] Internationally, countries like the USA, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Norway, etc. have some form of law, order or regulatory framework in place that affects net neutrality. The US Federal Communications Commission (telecom regulator in the USA) released new internet rules in March 2015, which mainly disallow: (i) blocking, (ii) throttling or slowing down, and (iii) paid prioritisation of certain applications over others.[iv] While the UK does not allow blocking or throttling of OTT services, it allows price discrimination. What do TRAI’s 2016 Regulations say? The latest TRAI regulations state that: (i) no service provider is allowed to enter into any agreement or contract that would result in discriminatory tariffs being charged to a consumer on the basis of content (data services), (ii) such tariffs will only be permitted in closed electronic communications networks, which are networks where data is neither received nor transmitted over the internet, (iii) a service provider may reduce tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, (iv) in case of contravention of these regulations, the service provider may have to pay Rs 50,000 per day of contravention, subject to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh, etc.[v] It may be noted that, in 2006 and 2008, TRAI had suggested that the internet sector remain unregulated and non-discriminatory (net neutral).[vi][vii] What are some of the key issues and perspectives of various stakeholders on net neutrality? TSPs and ISPs: TSPs invest in network infrastructure and acquire spectrum, without getting a share in the revenue of the OTT service providers. Some have argued that the investment by TSPs in internet infrastructure or penetration levels would diminish if they are not permitted to practice differential pricing, due to a lack of incentive. Another contention of the TSPs is that certain websites or applications require higher bandwidth than others. For example, websites that stream video content utilise much more bandwidth than smaller messaging applications, for which the TSPs need to build and upgrade network infrastructure. The Committee set up by DoT had recommended that the TSPs may need to better manage online traffic so that there is better quality of service for consumers and no network congestion. Further, the Committee also said that in case of local and national calls, TSP (regular calling) and OTT communication services (calls made over the internet) may be treated similarly for regulatory purposes. However, in case of international VoIP calling services and other OTT services, it did not recommend such regulatory oversight. Consumers and/or OTT service providers: The Committee set up by the DoT said that the core principles of net neutrality (equal treatment and equality in speed and cost) should be adhered to. It also said that OTT services (online content) enhance consumer welfare and increase productivity in many areas. These services should be actively encouraged. In the absence of neutrality, the internet may be fragmented and not as easily accessible to those who are unable to pay for certain services. It has been said that discrimination of internet content by TSPs could be detrimental to innovation as the bigger market players would be able to pay their way out of being throttled. This could potentially result in TSPs restricting consumers’ access to small-scale, but innovative or qualitative OTT services (restricting growth and innovation for start-ups too). Now that regulations regarding price discrimination are in force, we do not know whether TRAI or the government will enforce rules regarding other aspects of net neutrality. Also, the extent to which these regulations would affect the business of TSPs and OTT service providers remains to be seen. [i] “Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services”, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, December 9, 2015, http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReaddata/ConsultationPaper/Document/CP-Differential-Pricing-09122015.pdf. [ii] “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services”, TRAI, March 27, 2015, http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReaddata/ConsultationPaper/Document/OTT-CP-27032015.pdf. [iii] “Net Neutrality, DoT Committee Report”, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, May 2015, http://www.dot.gov.in/sites/default/files/u10/Net_Neutrality_Committee_report%20%281%29.pdf. [iv] “In the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet: Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order”, Federal Communications Commission USA, February 26, 2015, http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db0403/FCC-15-24A1.pdf. [v] “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016”, TRAI, February 8, 2016. [vi] “Consultation Paper on Review of Internet Services”, TRAI, December 2006, http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReaddata/ConsultationPaper/Document/consultation27dec06.pdf. [vii] “Recommendations on Issues related to Internet Telephony”, TRAI, August 18, 2008, http://www.trai.gov.in/WriteReadData/Recommendation/Documents/recom18aug08.pdf.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.