The recently launched ‘Facebook Free’ scheme by one of Nepal’s leading telecom operators – Ncell, in collaboration with Facebook, is reminiscent of the Free Basics initiative in India. The only difference is that the plan in India was banned following a ruling against any form of differential pricing (different tariffs and prices for different apps and services one uses on the internet) and zero-rating platforms (allowing the use of certain apps and services; chosen by telecom operators for free or at highly subsidized prices). The ban was imposed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the grounds that it violated the principle of Net Neutrality. On the contrary, in the case of Nepal there has been a striking absence of the government from the regulatory scene; thereby, providing leeway for Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) and Over-The-Top (OTT) service providers (apps and websites like Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype, Twitter etc.) to engage in deals that violate Net Neutrality.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is a principle that all content on the internet should be equally accessible and be provided at the same speed and cost. Consumers have the full discretion to choose what they want to access in the internet. This means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot give preference to particular OTT services or companies compelling consumers to use them over other market-players; however, Ncell’s Facebook Free scheme does exactly that.
Facebook Free violates Net Neutrality
Facebook Free scheme comes under zero-rating services wherein ISPs do not charge consumers for data usage in providing network services accessing specific websites – in this case, Facebook. On the outset, this might seem appealing, more so for users who are unaware of the larger implications and are lured by the zero payment proposals. But in reality, it violates internet’s guiding principle by acting as a gatekeeper of the internet and dictating what consumers have access to and not.
The Scenario in Nepal
What is scary is that such deals give way for monopoly and market-domination by companies with big pockets while keeping small; and maybe more innovative businesses, out of the field. As a result, the internet no longer remains a level playing field. It is especially worrisome in Nepal’s case because businesses and companies based on the internet in Nepal are still in infancy stage. This includes companies who either use internet to promote their products through standalone websites or social-media other than Facebook or, businesses that are modeled around internet based services (e.g. Sastodeal, Tootle etc). Such moves that violate net neutrality can prove to be a huge blow to these local initiatives, throttling growth even before they take shape.
Moreover, over the past few years, Nepal has been witnessing an exponential growth of retail stores and services advertised primarily through Facebook. If Facebook Free goes fully operational from its current pilot phase, Facebook – with an access to more than 14 million Ncell mobile subscribers – will gain monopolistic control over how businesses are conducted and advertised over Facebook. It might even start charging exorbitant fees for boosting and sponsoring pages. Additionally, the implementation of Free Facebook scheme without any questions and debate whatsoever is suggestive of a trend that might follow suit. If NTC also joins the bandwagon and makes deals with more companies with deep pockets seeking preferential treatment, then it will affect every one of us and the way we use internet.
Regulations the Way Ahead
So far the regulatory body of Nepal, Nepal Telecommunications Authority, has remained completely aloof from the debate. On the contrary, regulatory bodies have played an important role in net neutrality advocacy in countries like India and the United States of America (USA). For instance bodies such as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC), USA sought comments and feedbacks from the general public, while formulating policies to regulate the telecom and communications sector; including the internet. It is therefore crucial that clear, set regulations are in place as lack of regulatory scrutiny and apt policies make it easier for operators to engage in anti-competitive and profiteering activities and infringe on our internet freedom.