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.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.