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.
In the last few years, several states have enacted laws to curb cheating in examinations, especially those for recruitment in public service commissions. According to news reports, incidents of cheating and paper leaks have occurred on several occasions in Uttarakhand, including during the panchayat development officer exams in 2016, and the Uttarakhand Subordinate Services Selection Commission exams in 2021. The Uttarakhand Public Service Commission papers were also leaked in January 2023. The most recent cheating incidents led to protests and unrest in Uttarakhand. Following this, on February 11, 2023, the state promulgated an Ordinance to bar and penalise the use of unfair means in public examinations. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Bill replacing the Ordinance in March 2023. There have been multiple reports of candidates being arrested and debarred for cheating in public examinations for posts such as forest guard and secretariat guard after the ordinance’s introduction. Similar instances of cheating have also been noted in other states. As per news reports, since 2015, Gujarat has not been able to hold a single recruitment exam without reported paper leaks. In February 2023, the Gujarat Assembly also passed a law to penalise cheating in public examinations. Other states such as Rajasthan (Act passed in 2022), Uttar Pradesh (Act passed in 1998) and Andhra Pradesh (Act passed in 1997) also have similar laws. In this blog, we compare anti-cheating laws across some states (see Table 1), and discuss some issues to consider.
Typical provisions of anti-cheating laws
Anti-cheating laws across states generally contain provisions that penalise the use of unfair means by examinees and other groups in public examinations such as those conducted by state public sector commission examinations and higher secondary education boards. Broadly, unfair means is defined to include the use of unauthorised help and the unauthorised use of written material by candidates. These laws also prohibit individuals responsible for conducting examinations from disclosing any information they acquire in this role. The more recent laws, such as the Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan ones, also include the impersonation of candidates and the leaking of exam papers within the definition of unfair means. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh prohibit the use of electronic aids. Maximum prison sentences for using such unfair means range from three months in Uttar Pradesh, to seven years in Andhra Pradesh.
Issues to consider
The Gujarat and Uttarakhand anti-cheating Acts have relatively stringent provisions for cheating. The Uttarakhand Act has a fixed 3-year prison sentence for examinees caught cheating or using unfair means (for the first offence). Since the Act does not distinguish between the different types of unfair means used, an examinee could serve a sentence disproportionate to the offence committed. In most other states, the maximum imprisonment term for such offences is three years. Andhra Pradesh has a minimum imprisonment term of three years. However, all these states allow for a range with respect to the penalty, that is, the judge can decide on the imprisonment term (within the specified limits) depending on the manner of cheating and the implications of such cheating. Table 1 below compares the penalties for certain offences across eight states.
The Uttarakhand Act has a provision that debars the examinee from state competitive examinations for two to five years upon the filing of the chargesheet, rather than upon conviction. Thus, an examinee could be deprived of giving the examination even if they were innocent but being prosecuted under the law. This could compromise the presumption of innocence for accused candidates. The Gujarat and Rajasthan laws also debar candidates from sitting in specified examinations for two years, but only upon conviction.
These laws also vary in scope across states. In Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, the laws only apply to competitive examinations for recruitment in a state department (such as a Public Commission). In the other six states examined, these laws also apply to examinations held by educational institutions for granting educational qualifications such as diplomas and degrees. For example, in Gujarat, exams conducted by the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board are also covered under the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2023. The question is whether it is appropriate to have similar punishments for exams in educational institutions and exams for recruitment in government jobs, given the difference in stakes between them.
Sources: The Rajasthan Public Examination (Measures for Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2022; the Uttar Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 1998; the Chhattisgarh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2008; the Orissa Conduct of Examinations Act, 1988; the Andhra Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Malpractices and Unfair means) Act, 1997; the Jharkhand Conduct of Examinations Act, 2001, the Uttarakhand Competitive Examination (Measures for Prevention and Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2023, the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Methods) Act, 2023; PRS.