Rajeev Chandrasekhar was angry. The independent Rajya Sabha MP had spent most of his evening glued to his iPhone trying to fend off Medianama editor and active net neutrality campaigner Nikhil Pahwa, on Twitter.
The bone of contention was a letter that Chandrasekhar wrote to India’s telecom regulator TRAI two days after the regulator banned differential data pricing — and, effectively, Facebook’s controversial Free Basics programme — in India in February. A copy of the letter was marked to telecom minister R. S. Prasad and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
@rajeev_mp @TRAI Mr Chandrasekhar: You have been name calling all evening. I’ve only characterised your responses based on how are
— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) June 6, 2016
The letter, a harsh critique on the TRAI’s process of regulation, said that instead of banning differential pricing entirely, TRAI should have looked into it on a case-by-case basis before framing a regulation. Chandrasekhar said that Pahwa was selectively copy-pasting parts of his letter to label him as “pro telcos”, a label that Chandrasekhar says he has “major problems with.”
Chandrasekhar has been vocal in the net neutrality debate that kicked off in India at the end of 2014, but critics have accused him of flip-flopping on his position on the topic.
When I meet him in a front office filled with members from his policy and media relations teams at his North Avenue residence on a scorching June afternoon, Chandrasekhar looks cool and collected, but as he talks, the conversation becomes increasingly animated.
Excerpts from an interview edited for clarity:
So let’s talk about…
We will do this in 30 minutes? I have to go to a Committee meeting.
Sure. Your policy team was just telling me about how you were emerging from the fireworks of last night on Twitter.
(Laughs) I am not emerging from anything. I am fine. I usually don’t respond to nonsense. But when you start branding me as pro telco and all that, that sounds motivated. You have to be either a complete idiot or very motivated to call me pro telco. I am the person who took on this issue from the get go.
Why do you think you are being labelled like that?
I don’t know, ask Nikhil [Pahwa]. Ask those guys.
He was quoting your position from a letter you wrote to the TRAI after the regulator banned differential pricing in February, he said on Twitter. He wasn’t accusing you of anything.
Then he should check with me, I feel that if he’s calling me pro telco, then I will feel pro telco…I mean I will feel offended. Look, one thing I value is my integrity and my hard work. Nobody, however well-intentioned or genius you may consider yourself, can take that from me. You call me pro something without substantiating it, I have a problem.
Unless they’re calling you pro net neutrality, I guess.
Yeah, well. I am pro consumer rights. I don’t approach issues with a certain formula in my head, which is unfortunately what goes on in Delhi too much. I engage with people and understand all points of view. I can’t play God and say I am the self-appointed genius of net neutrality. For instance, I have just decided that you are pro this red T-shirt (points to the red T-shirt I am wearing).
Which I am.
So I can’t say you are pro Leftist because red means Left or something stupid like that.
We must never take serious conversation down by labels. I have been doing this thing for many more years than you guys have been. I have worked with some of the brightest minds in the world. And the bright guys don’t come at it saying I am the bright guy (bangs hand on the table), and you guys are wrong because you oppose me.
In your letter to the TRAI after the differential pricing ban, you did make statements about how TRAI should not have banned differential pricing entirely, and I think that is the point that Nikhil and others who were labelling you pro telco on Twitter were trying to say.
He’s telling you that.
He’s not telling me that, I am merely following your argument on Twitter.
I don’t argue. I just responded to what he said. You can be ambassador for him, not ambassador for him, doesn’t matter.
You’re labelling me now.
You could or you could not be. I took offence at being called pro telco.
I took on the TRAI, I put this letter out there at a time when everybody was saying TRAI is the greatest thing since apple pie and ice cream.
Well, that’s because TRAI took a strong stand against differential pricing, which made Free Basics illegal. That strong position was kind of unprecedented.
They played to popular sentiment.
Why do you think so?
It’s the mistake TRAI makes again and again, missing the point between a good, well-crafted, rational regulation versus playing pulpit politics.
I interviewed TRAI Chairman R. S. Sharma a couple of days ago and he said that TRAI sees its role as a protector of the consumer. So banning differential pricing was a consumer-friendly position.
No no, let’s back up a bit. TRAI is an institution that is mandated under law to do some things. It is not a charitable NGO full of good intentions. There is an accountable function it is supposed to discharge. It’s not a group of well-meaning people supposed to protect consumers. They are funded by tax payers.
Why does your letter to them say that they should not have issued a blanket ban on differential pricing?
Of course, I have said it many times in the past also, in my submissions.
But you wrote an article on NDTV where you came out against differential pricing once. Aren’t you happy it’s banned?
Look, one second, I just want to make one point to you very clearly. You will not find anything inconsistent in what I said. So don’t dig. Don’t waste your time.
I am just doing my job.
No no no! You dig. But I am telling you. You will find that my stand on this has been absolutely consistent.
My stand has been that the biggest challenge to net neutrality is the gate-keeping function of telcos. The power that telcos have today as pipes, to increasingly encroach on the commercial marketplace on the web, is a dangerous power and that should be prevented and protected. That is the principle of net neutrality. That’s what I believe in and what I have believed in from the get go.
The second point is that there are many other parts to net neutrality [like throttling], which the TRAI hasn’t addressed yet. I have consistently said that the TRAI must first define what net neutrality is before they start regulating it.
This is the problem I have with [the ban on] differential tariff. Give me the rationale. How can you do ex ante prohibition based on some perceived threat [to net neutrality]?
They didn’t ban it based on a perceived threat. There was a very public consultation process that happened leading up to it. We all saw the lengths to which Facebook went, for instance, to sway public opinion during that period.
A public consultation is not going into a room and listening to 100,000 people and selectively taking on four points and making that the order. A public consultation means that all 150 issues that were raised in the consultation have to be dealt with. He did not deal with it.
By “he” do you mean R. S. Sharma?
I mean the TRAI. I have nothing to do with R. S. Sharma. My criticism from 2007 till now is that TRAI as an institution does not even know what a public consultation is supposed to be.
You can’t just say gate-keeping from telcos is a big threat, so ban differential data pricing.
But like I said earlier, you have come out against differential pricing in the past. Why are you changing your stand now? This is what people mean when they call you inconsistent. Why are you batting for differential pricing now?
Who says I am batting for it?
You just said they shouldn’t have banned it.
That is a critique of the regulation, which says that you should take on differential pricing on a case to case basis and examine from evidence, and dismiss it on evidence and ban it on evidence.
I am talking about the rigour and integrity of the process that leads to the conclusion. [TRAI] is so eager to get to the conclusion of the process that they say forget it and short-circuit it by just banning something.
So hypothetically, if they had gone through this regulatory rigour that you speak of, and decided to not ban differential pricing, would you have been OK with Free Basics as it was?
Look, if Free Basics or Airtel Zero is proved to be discriminatory, I would have said ban them.
So you’re saying they should have let a program like Airtel Zero run for a while before framing regulations around it.
I would have wanted TRAI to list out all evidence in favour of and against Airtel Zero. What are Airtel Zero and Free Basics saying? That we improve connectivity. What are the people opposing them saying? That they distort the free, fundamental nature of the internet. Arre…evidence toh leke aao na (get evidence, at least). How is it that I am only listening to a Nikhil Pahwa as a point of view [against these programs]?
But you have come out against zero-rating programs for commercial purposes like Airtel Zero in the past.
Of course. I was the first one to do it. I raised it in the Parliament.
But now you’re saying there needs to be evidence before they are banned.
I have said that Airtel Zero is evidence that telecom companies [indulge in] gate-keeping. You’re talking about Free Basics.
No, I am making a very clear distinction between commercial programs like Airtel Zero and other programs like Free Basics where no money exchanges hands between Facebook and telcos directly.
You’re mixing up two things.
I am not mixing up two things.
I’m telling you about my letter [that I wrote to TRAI]. I am critiquing their process. If you ask me my point of view today about whether Airtel Zero is a distortion of net neutrality, I will say yes. But my point of view cannot be TRAI’s regulation.
But you just said that Airtel Zero is evidence of telcos indulging in gate-keeping, which is a distortion of net neutrality.
I am making two points here. My letter to TRAI is a critique of the process by which they arrived at a regulation [the ban on differential pricing]. I have said in the letter that the TRAI has not handled any evidence, both for and against differential pricing, and therefore the order is weak.
I came out strongly against Airtel Zero in November 2014 (Editor’s note: Airtel Zero was launched in April 2015), because my consistent stand has been that a telecom company has no business increasing their commercial influence on the marketplace. That position has been consistent.
My critique of the TRAI process is in no way a dilution of my individual views of what constitutes telcos gate-keeping or not.
To try and trap me as being inconsistent [on my positions]…that is all (makes grunting noise)…that is all Twitter language and it’s not true.
What are your views on zero-rated services like Free Basics where no money exchanges hands between Facebook and the telcos?
I have said all along that Free Basics is not a telco. If there is any evidence that Free Basics is disrupting free and fair competition in the marketplace, we have the Competition Commission of India. If you want to jump to the conclusion that Free Basics is the next big enemy in town, sorry, I don’t operate that way.
You don’t believe in the rigour of TRAI’s regulation process. Have there been any changes in the process since Mr. Sharma became Chairman in July?
No. I think Mr. Sharma has inherited an institution that is not consistent with the challenges of this sector. You’re trying to regulate that ecosystem with a group of retired Department of Telecom people with one hand behind their backs…trying to fight a battle against big, rich companies with fat cat lawyers.
How would you change it if you were TRAI Chairman?
You need some smart guys in TRAI. You need young people, economists, lawyers, people who understand technology. Its powers have to go up. Most important, TRAI must be accountable to the Parliament and made to depose and clarify all their regulations.
Is there anything in the last 18 months since the net neutrality debate started that TRAI has done right? Or have they completely messed it up?
I don’t want to say “messed it up.” I am not in to that game. I am not an activist and I don’t want to shatter an institution by condemning it.
The TRAI has an increasingly pivotal role in terms of attracting investments, startup ecosystems, and grooming the internet of the future. For that, it has to be capable, credible, and ahead of the curve.
What is the point in you and me squabbling today about what net neutrality is when the TRAI is not defining it and making a mess of it?
So they are making a mess of it.
No, I was just making conversation.