governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘facebook’

TRAI should junk net neutrality

Chairman TRAI

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), was once the gold standard for “light touch” regulation, in stark contrast to electricity regulators, who continue today, to be stuck in byzantine rate of return regulation and administering cross subsidy between classes of users.

TRAI loses industry focus

TRAI has changed since. Consider that on November 29 it recommended to the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) that rural users should get a limited amount of data for free, funded from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) managed by DOT. To the everlasting credit of DOT, this was shot down, as unnecessary and inconsistent with the basic objective of the USOF, which principally finances telecom infrastructure.

One third of the 250,000 gram-panchayats, targeted under Bharatnet, have been connected to broadband. Tenders have been finalized to connect an additional one half. But Bharatnet is still a work in progress. Diverting funds into revenue expenditure is unwise.

TRAI’s proposal would have taken telecom down the route of electricity regulation, where subsidies for agriculture and domestic users have proved intractable and sap the viability of the distribution utilities.

Intrusive regulation has become the norm for TRAI, suitably packaged as serving the interest of the “small” user. Regulatory experience shows that governments should steer clear of distorting business incentives by subsidizing one technology over another or by benefiting a set of users either at the expense of other users (cross subsidy) or at the expense of budgetary allocations (state subsidy).

Net neutrality has its adherents but is it backward looking

Net Neutrality

It is ironic that, way back in March 2015, Facebook had proposed a privately funded initiative to provide free access to limited or curated content, in collaboration with a Telecom Service Provider (TSP) to the same “small” users, whom TRAI now wants subsidized from public funds.

Curiously, this proposal was shot down by TRAI in February 2016 as violating “net neutrality”, cheered on by vocal, Indian “netizens”. Over 1 million netizens had jammed the servers of TRAI with outraged petitions against Facebook’s proposal. NASSCOM, which represents software and content providers, added its weight to the storm, thereby protecting the business interests of incumbent content providers.

Even IT gurus like Nandan Nilekani opposed the innovative intrusion into the cozy confines of Indian IT. Paying homage to “net neutrality” was, at the time, also justified by pointing to the elaborate systems, for protection of this concept, put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States.

United States FCC to roll back “over regulation” and restore net freedom

Ajit PaiToday, a marginally Republican FCC, incidentally helmed by Indian origin, Ajit Pai, is rolling back, what it calls stifling “over regulation” of the net in the name of restoring freedom for innovation. To be sure 22 million US “netizens” have howled in orchestrated protest, against a rule change, seemingly, in favour of business. In this charged debate, anything which is pro-business is anti-consumer. A zero-sum view of commerce which is a familiar story in India.

Closer home, the November 28 recommendations of TRAI on “net-neutrality”, expectedly, carry forward the bloated carcass of Obama style intrusive regulation. TRAI is right in asserting that neutral traffic management is a technical ideal – selective blocking, slowing down or degrading specific content even when line capacity is available is banned. No one contests that generic principle.

Competition is aso an effective tool for optimisation

The real regulatory choice today is between competition in transmission, as a compelling instrument to simulate what “net neutrality” was supposed to do versus continuing with intrusive oversight over quasi-monopolistic transmission providers. Relying on and enforcing competition, seems a more effective, hands-off option in our pervasive, low-oversight ecosystem.

Another reason why “net neutrality” as a principle stands compromised is that increasingly, the transmission needs of content vary. With new services coming online, we will need multiple transmission protocols. Consider that online text need not be continuously streamed without detracting from reader pleasure. But online heart surgery support can be fatal unless continuous streaming is ensured. The same applies to internet access for driverless vehicles. TRAI has recognized these difficulties and the possibility that the Internet of Things will transform the rules for optimum scheduling of transmission.

Regulation by exception is non-transparent

TRAI’s solution falls short of transparent regulation. It has provided for exceptions, on a case-by-case basis, from “net neutrality” norms – for emergencies and unspecified “specialized services”. The latter are distinguished from general services by their targeted appeal to a narrow set of users.

Is net neutrality obsolete?

A better option would have been to review whether “net neutrality” itself is not obsolete because it will become riddled with exceptions. It was an important principle in the 1990s, to ensure market access for fledgling innovators in content provision by prescribing a merit order for getting past monopolistic telecom transmission utilities. But today competition is rife, both in transmission and in content provision. Possibly, the need of the hour for TRAI was to seek pathways downsizing regulations to simply protecting access, to basic internet services, for small users. High value-added services anyway, provide sufficient revenue incentives, for TSPs to push availability.

Providing net access remains a challenge

A massive challenge for India, per TRAI data, is that only one half of Indian citizens are connected to the internet as compared to 81 percent in the US and 76 per cent in China. Competition has reduced the access charge to affordable levels. But the quality of services is low because of under- investment in infrastructure.

Internet Service providers need new pools of revenue

Heavy penalties for non-compliance with quality standards can improve the quality of service. But TSPs finances are already under stress. Spectrum cost is high. If government earnings from spectrum are not to be reduced and user charges are to remain low, TSPs need to find new pools of revenue to fund infrastructure development. Their business models need to go beyond being just “passive pipes” – the role which “net neutrality” forces on them.

Software and content providers are not necessarily winners either in a net neutral environment. Consider that, in 2015 Facebook got stymied in India. But which Indian “edge provider” (jargon for content providers) gained from that blocking action? Rapid growth of infrastructure is the best option to fuel demand for content. This is a better incentive for innovation than protectionist regulation.

“Minimum government, maximum governance” is a Modi mantra. TRAI appears not to have been copied.

Also available at TOI Blogs December 6, 2017

Privacy – an elite fantasy


Elite concerns are usually disconnected from the ground reality. For the 1 per cent of Indian who live privileged, cocooned lives, the judicial right to privacy created by the Supreme Court yesterday will add yet another layer with which they can insulate themselves from the “barbarians at the gate”. So, here is what the rich may now be able to do which they couldn’t earlier.

Is the right to euthanasia next?

First, they may now be able to refuse medical treatment and die in their beds, peacefully, instead of being compulsorily hooked up to tiresome, life-saving machines in hospitals. But try explaining this “right” to the millions of poor Indians for whom just getting admitted to hospitals is still a dream and refusing treatment would be unimaginable.

Deletable past lives

Second, the well-heeled may now be able to press for being judicially forgotten – all traces of their past lives and identities expunged, giving them a fresh start without having to flee to distant London or arid Dubai. Contrast this with the Herculean efforts the average Indian makes to become part of a database and have an officially recognized identity – a voter card, a passport, a PAN card, anything which proves that she exists.

LGBT sex may become legitimate

Third, those with alternative lifestyles – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community might now hope to be free of the notoriously archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes everything other than straight sex. But would this give them the right to marry a partner of their choice; adopt children or be socially accepted?

Evidencing crime will become harder

Now ponder the downsides. Law enforcement agencies struggle to manage terrorism, Naxalism, urban mafiosi, drug pushers and armed rural gangsters even today. “Privacy” concerns will provide a legal shield to undermine information collection, crime detection and investigation. Nothing less than the over-the-top, draconian Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act – used today only in the “disturbed” areas in Kashmir and parts of the North East – would be effective. Since gangsters can afford to hire the best lawyers, the violation of their fundamental right to privacy in the process of enforcing the law, will now become a favourite ploy to keep these worthies free to wreak havoc.

How intrusive is the Indian State anyway?

Will this fundamental to privacy help the 200 million slum dwellers or the unknown millions who sleep under the stars on urban streets? Is not our fear of the “big State” overblown? The India I know is under policed, under governed and under regulated. There is a plethora of agencies, laws and rules to bind down anyone and yet very few – mostly the timid, those mindful of their public image and the law respecting middle class get intimidated by the legal spaghetti. The rich buy their way out of any mess and the poor are so inured to danger and risk that it is second nature for them to live with uncertainty.

Biometric targeting of beneficiaries to be abandoned?

Take the case of Adhaar for verifying the identity of those using the Public Distribution System (PDS). Recent studies in Jharkhand by responsible social scientists – Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera – found that 15 percent of the eligible PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of technical glitches or access problems in using Aadhar as a test of identity. But 85 percent of the beneficiaries were targeted correctly. If the right to privacy eliminates the use of Adhaar, we will be back to what Rajiv Gandhi famously called the 25 percent approach to poverty reduction – where 75 percent of the funds are siphoned-off by intermediaries. How and why would a reversion to a system which has huge inclusion errors (ineligible people getting benefited) be any better?

Big data to be throttled?

Finally, consider how retrograde is the fight by “right to privacy” advocates against big data. It is big data – the billions of pieces of information on human behavior and preferences linked to specific human demographics, which enables algorithms to predict trends, thereby aligning products and services with customer needs. This is what makes big data commercially valuable. In price sensitive markets like India, telecom and e-commerce penetration is being driven by the potential to monetize big data. Putting brakes on this process means putting brakes on the rolling out of technology services which will become more expensive if the actual user is to pay for them.

India lost an opportunity in 2014 when facebook- Bharti Airtel wanted to roll out free internet services on mobiles. TRAI regulations ensured that this venture never took off, thereby slowing down internet access for all except the 300 million people in the upper most income segments who can afford it.

Tilting at windmills

Nandan Nilekani is now an evangelist against “digital colonialism” in the context of tech majors like Google and Amazon aggressively expanding their presence in India. We should be wary of tech industry insiders playing the “anti-foreign” card. Similar attempts were made by the infamous “Bombay Club” to scuttle the 1992 economic liberalization. Their contention was that liberalizing the domestic market was fine but Indian industry should continue to be protected from foreign competition. We are fortunate that the government of the day paid no heed to this self-serving agenda.

Keep India open for competition

India is a big economy with very shallow industrialization. We need to remain open to all economic actors – domestic and foreign who want to invest in India. It would be a huge mistake to emulate the xenophobia of the United States and draw up our bridges. Data is the new oil. Data security needs to be ensured, irrespective of whether data is stored in India, or overseas. But generating anti-foreign hysteria is not in our interest as we try to integrate into global supply chains and become a part of the global value creation eco-system.

It is easy enough to legislate rights. We have many notional rights. Creating a level playing field for all citizens to enjoy these rights, equally, is another matter altogether.

Also at

Bulk up to beat the competition


Scaling up is the name of the game in politics and in business. The BJP secured enviable gains in the early 2017 municipal elections in Maharashtra and Odisha. A win in the Goa state election is likely. A possible, albeit messy, near-win in Uttar Pradesh and potential inroads into Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal portend that the Narendra Modi juggernaut is rolling out a massive, vertically integrated consolidation of party votes across the three levels of government.

Big, deep pockets business is in

In business, too, big is beautiful. Government banks and oil companies are being merged into competitively-sized entities. Reliance, India’s second biggest company by market capitalisation, after Tata Consultancy Services, still rankles at the loss of the top position due to faltering gas production. It is now hitting back at the fragmented competition in telecom, targeting an aggressive 50 per cent share by 2021.


Bigger publicly owned enterprises and bigger government is the inevitable option if private investment response is weak 

The government sector too is expected to grow. Some of this is dictated by the compulsions of the faltering international economy. Private capital is risk averse when returns are dodgy. Public capital then is the only option. India is terribly under-capitalised in network and social infrastructure. We spend less than one half of what we should to get rid of the infrastructure constraints on growth and security. The government’s budget needs to expand by at least one-fourth to accommodate the necessary capital spend. FY 2017-18 is not budgeted to be different from the past. There is not enough time before the 2019 general election for grounding project plans into reality. Jobs will consequently be funded by public finance.

Citizen anxiety at being left out in the cold

anxious citizens

Should citizens and consumers then be apprehensive about the drive to consolidate and grow across government and business? Not really. Dominance is a systemic outcome of competition. Institutional safeguards can ensure that dominance is not misused to dilute citizen and consumer interests. The scale of operations should be a matter of choice, not compulsion, or the outcome of regulatory nudges. Citizens should rather be concerned that decent jobs won’t come unless businesses and government grow to scales dictated by market parameters.

Multiparty politics only means larger ballot boxes


The political architecture is similarly fragmented. A loose law allows a mind-boggling 1,452 political parties to be “registered” by the Election Commission under the Representation of the People Act 1951. Only 54 parties are recognised at the state level and just six are national parties. Recognition has stricter norms linked to voter share and elected candidates. Believe it or not, the commission’s powers to de-register moribund parties are not explicit.

Multi-party politics has become a fetish, far beyond its usefulness to the average voter. Tightening up on representational norms is possible without diluting the basic freedom to choose one’s political party. Just gearing up the disclosure, internal governance and accounting requirements, to the levels required for companies, can reduce the number of registered parties.

Smart regulation can weed out frivolous parties

Enforcing regulatory compliance can deter frivolous registration and ensure responsible representation. This is illustrated by the experience of companies. Of the 16 million commercial entities operating in India, just one million are registered under the Companies Act 2013, despite the benefits which accrue from registration. It is not as if only large commercial entities choose to get registered. 66 per cent of companies are very small with an authorised share capital below Rs 1 million or just $15,000. But the widespread reluctance to register is because of the accompanying higher levels of disclosure required. Political parties would respond similarly. Only the most serious ones would remain registered if regulatory requirements were increased in the public interest.

Political consolidation as a public good.

Why should we think of political consolidation as a public good? Our fractured and divisive social architecture provides ready opportunities for exploitation of the cleavages for narrow political purposes. We must make it difficult for parties. which cater solely to narrow agendas. Social inclusion fundamentalists would rebel against any institutional constraint on the freedom of a political party to represent even marginal views. But look at the trade-offs. Caste and religion find no place, in our Constitution, as legitimate grounds for political mobilisation. Introducing institutional mechanisms which encourage broad-banding of political platforms is therefore legitimate.

Mandate rainbow nominations for inclusive politics


One way to ensure such broad-banding across castes and religions is to mandate that parties must replicate the prevailing rainbow of castes and religions while nominating candidates in specific jurisdictions. Savvy political parties are already doing so. The BJP broadened its appeal to dalit and backward caste voters in Uttar Pradesh (2017). A quarter of Bahujan Samaj Party candidates are Muslims to demonstrate Mayawati’s good faith while seeking Muslim support. The Samajwadi Party’s tieup with the Congress broadens its appeal to dalits and upper castes — both long-time supporters of the Congress.

In a fragmented political market, institutional compulsions to broaden the electoral base can be an effective catalyst for consolidation. This would be a welcome change from the minimalist strategy of securing the largest number of votes polled by splintering your opponent’s vote share below your own.

Leave room to grow 

Limiting governmental and private sector dominance by constraining their ability to grow has negative social and economic outcomes. We barred Facebook from giving free access to a limited Internet space in 2016 due to the misplaced fear of deep pockets-driven future dominance. E-commerce — similarly driven by deep pockets — has somehow bucked the tendency to protect incumbents. Institutional reform to regulate big institutions is overdue. Smart laws and empowered regulators can sift destructive dominance from scaling up for efficiency enhancement. Bulking up is the international trend. We cannot but conform.


Adapted from the author’s article in Asian Age, March 9, 2017

TRAI: Misplaced rage against Facebook

Even as Davos was worrying over the haemorrhage of international capital from emerging markets and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was at pains to point out that India was different, a different narrative was unfolding in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in Delhi. It had to do with a consultation paper issued by TRAI on “Differential Pricing for Data Services” inviting responses from the public. The consultation process closed on January 7.

The breaking news a few days back was the quixotic outburst by a senior TRAI official in a letter addressed to the $260-billion social media giant, Facebook, harshly rebuking it for inundating TRAI with template responses from nearly 2 million users in support of the Facebook-promoted Free Basics. The senior official was apparently outraged at the manner in which Facebook used its brute “majoritarian” muscle to intimidate TRAI with overwhelming public opinion and asserted that if such tactics were accepted, “it would have dangerous ramifications for policy making in India”

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Readers will remember that last year a TRAI consultation paper on Net Neutrality was similarly responded to by net neutrality fundamentalists to demonstrate the ground swell of opinion in favour of a strict version of neutrality. At the time TRAI was indulgent of this innovative way of crowd sourcing opinion. This time around it is Facebook, not indigent activists, on the front foot; the leadership in TRAI has changed and it seems to be open season for charges and counter charges.

Zenophobia or pique?

The “establishment” and a large swathe of Indians, bred on traditional distrust of the “Ugly American”, are quick to take offence at the in-your-face lobbying. To be fair, Facebook clearly went over the top in pushing its case. Americans play hardball and have to be restrained when dealing with other cultures, like ours, where soft, behind-the-scenes contact achieves far more.

In the instant case, Facebook’s evangelical assertion that Free Basics is all about giving free access to the “poor” lacks credibility. Free Basics is a process innovation to improve business for Facebook and the telecommunication service provider (TSP), which provides the access. But isn’t that what all successful businesses are supposed to do. Why else would you invest in them?

TRAI has developed a solid reputation for being a savvy, growth-oriented regulator. The recent outburst is quite out of sync with its image and one hopes that it remains an outlier.

The case against free access “walled gardens”

Now, on to the substance of the matter. The case against “walled gardens” like Free Basics is built around two reasons.

First, in a price-sensitive market like India, a freebie is habit forming – like reading a free newspaper which provides selective news. But it is insulting to readers to assume that they cannot see that they are getting only limited stuff. For getting a child married, they are unlikely to use the freebie and instead insert an advertisement in a popular daily, if they can afford to do so.

The second argument is that TSPs are likely to favour content providers who pay them in return for free access and shun or disadvantage others who do not. This discriminates against start-ups which do not have the financial muscle to reimburse the TSP for free access. Thereby innovation itself will be stifled, like great art which remains undiscovered because the big galleries will only stock established artists.

These are powerful concerns in an ecosystem which has grown around unhindered and near real time access to innovation via the internet.

Strict net neutrality imposes unnecessary costs on the final user of the net and sharply constrains assess in poor countries which walled gardens can help breach   

There are three counter arguments why fears that innovation will be stifled by walled gardens.

First, internet-based content is a growing market-especially in India. Only 25 per cent of Wi-Fi subscribers in India access it via a mobile. Less than a 100 million people in India have a 3G or a 4G enabled handset (one of every twelve persons). This illustrates that the potential for new business via new and better content providers is virtually unlimited.


Second, creating content is a highly competitive business like tailoring. If your trousers don’t fit, you are unlikely to order repeats. Similarly, if the content on Free Basics fails to keep up with content in the same space available elsewhere, you will switch your TSP or opt out of Free Basics. If enough apps on Free Basics are duds, it will eventually negatively impact Facebook itself, as users will either migrate to another “free walled garden”. Even if walled gardens are habit forming, they will compete with each other, possibly even on the same TSP network.

Third, the IT ecosystem automatically filters out non performers. The TSP needs data traffic to make its returns. Content providers need eyeballs for successive rounds of funding or they are forced to shut shop, merge or sell out.  This is not an ecosystem which is kind to those who are not on-top.

If the concern is to ensure voice for minorities, there is nothing to stop a walled garden from coming up specifically targeted at socially important, but fringe, groups – the lonely blogger writing on about the rights of the Rohingyas; social activists raging against growing inequality and other such laudable causes. There is nothing to stop a government-supported entity from launching a free wall where anyone can post and to which access is free. This has a parallel in public service broadcasting. Facebook’s social objectives may be doubtful. But surely non-state actors can fill that breach.

Light touch regulation requires nerves of steel and a deep resolve to not be influenced, either by public opinion or ideology. It also requires technical expertise and industry experience to drill down from motherhood concepts like “net neutrality” and contextualize its application to the market and the regulated entities. So long as the regulator remains neutral, the net is safe.

Net Neutrality can be breached if it is in national interest; does not result in dominant monopoly and is the outcome of technical or business innovation. Let’s not hang our hat by outdated ideological shibboleths. Sometimes majoritarian opinion is worth considering even if it comes via an industry biggie.

Adapted from the authors’ article in Swarajyamag

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