How to ensure that the internet remains accessible to all
The ease of living made possible by digital technologies has turned digital innovations into essential services for the general public. The Internet, which was once considered a novelty, has become a necessity for most daily affairs.
To enable access to the Internet, various gateways have emerged in the last few decades in the form of telecommunication service providers, personal computers and smartphones, operating systems, etc. However, when these gateways enable and restrict access to other gateways or networks, the openness of the Internet is threatened. They then shift roles from a facilitator to a regulator, from a gateway to a gatekeeper. Consequently, the need for a code of conduct or regulation arises to keep the playing field level and accessible to all.
Telecommunications companies have been instrumental in providing a gateway to essential communication services such as voice calls, internet data and text messages. We have seen governments around the world take measures from time to time to regulate these entities to ensure democratic access for the public. The breakup of AT&T in the 1980s is one such example. If this code of conduct was not enforced on these gateway providers, the Internet would not be what it is today. These providers would have turned into gatekeepers, and the Internet would have been controlled by them, thwarting innovation and its democratic expansion.
Closer to home, another example of the enforcement of this code on providers was when the Indian government came out with the policy on Net Neutrality which, among other things, states that telecom networks must be neutral with respect to all information transmitted through them. In other words, networks must treat all communications passing through them equally, regardless of their content, application, service, device, sender or receiver address.
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Adopting Net Neutrality ensured that we took a democratic stand against Big Tech. But for this policy we would have had the likes of Facebook offering its free basics only to see the internet split into walled gardens controlled by telcos and Big Tech companies. Fast forward to today, India is one of the largest consumers of wireless internet, with over 800 million users. As we plan to roll out 5G, the sky is the limit for innovation. The Internet must remain an open and permissionless platform for a digitally empowered India.
At the rate at which digital technologies are evolving, the code of conduct and regulations cannot catch up with the new gateway providers that are emerging. One such example is distribution platforms for smartphone apps. The two prominent operating systems emerging for smartphones, Google and Apple, enjoy a lion’s share of the app store market. They have introduced good practices to ensure basic hygiene for smartphone applications, maintain quality standards for the content on their operating systems and safeguard the interests of their users. Although, without proper regulations to oversee how they decide what to weed and whose interests to protect, it’s a slippery slope.
Various practices of these distribution platforms have come into focus in recent times. These range from restrictions on payment gateways, advertising choices, app policies and various other aspects of an app or business that could be considered discriminatory in both principle and practice. In March, a report placed before the Competition Commission of India found that Google Play Store’s payment policy was “unfair and discriminatory”. According to an update in Google’s Play Store billing policy in September 2020, all apps on its platform are required to use its payment services for any kind of in-app payments or subscriptions. Similar concerns have been raised for Apple’s App Store, with both platforms reportedly charging up to 30 percent commission on payments processed.
Google and Apple dominate the global market share of smartphone operating systems (OS). This allowed them to gain unilateral control over the publishing of smartphone applications on their operating system. As businesses become increasingly digitally driven, developers are forced to bend to the dictates of these gatekeepers and make changes to their apps or use their own ad engines if they want their apps to see the light of day.
As evident by the overnight change in Google’s billing policy, various smartphone app-dependent businesses and developers remain vulnerable to such internal business policy changes on these platforms. The suspension of prominent apps, especially in the payments space, by distribution platforms is not unheard of. This leaves most developers and businesses with no effective recourse against such disruption. Such unfettered influence on all smartphone apps breeds discriminatory forces that will make it harder for Davids to take on Goliaths.
Recognizing these concerns, the European Union recently introduced the Digital Markets Act, which received its final approval in July 2022 and is expected to be implemented by early 2023. The regulation of the Digital Markets Act aims to keep digital markets innovative and open to competition, through ex-ante regulation. The DMA will prohibit the implementation of the most harmful anti-competitive practices by the largest digital platforms. The goal is to balance the relationship between these platforms that control access to digital markets and the companies that offer their services there.
The Indian government has taken a giant leap forward in maintaining its sovereignty through the ground-breaking and disruptive digital public goods it has created. Aadhaar, UPI, DigiLocker and CoWIN are just a few names that adorn this list. However, there is still a wide reliance on various digital offerings made possible by multinational Big Tech companies. It is the need of the hour for the government to work out appropriate regulations to ensure a level playing field and not allow the innovative gateways to turn into tyrannical gatekeepers.
The author is Chief Executive, National Health Authority. Views are personal