July 16, 2018 @ 2:00 am

16 JULY 2018

A welcome move

India will now have among the strongest net neutrality regulations

In a vital decision that will help secure the rights of Internet users in the country, the Telecom Commission has approved the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on net neutrality. By endorsing steps that call for amendments to access services licences for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Telecom Operators, the Commission has made it clear that any violation of net neutrality will be treated as a violation of the licence conditions. It has said that some specialised and emerging services such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) may be exempt from the non-discriminatory principles, but these cannot be at the cost of the overall quality of Internet access. Combining this approval with the fact that TRAI had barred telecom service providers from charging differential rates for data services (zero rating, for example), India will now have among the strongest net neutrality regulations. This is as it should be. Net neutrality is the basic principle of an open Internet that does not allow for content discrimination by ISPs. The user is free to access any web location at the same paid-for speed without any discrimination by the ISP.

This proviso has helped democratise the Internet and undergird its growth from a networked system of computers that enabled e-commerce, social interaction, knowledge flow and entertainment, among other functions. Internet pioneers — including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Transmission Control Protocol/IP Protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf — have consistently maintained that the principle of net neutrality is built into the structure of the Internet itself. The layers and protocols for connectivity via the network have been erected in such a way that access is seamless irrespective of the nature of the physical infrastructure of the network. It is to the credit of the Telecom Commission and TRAI that this principle has been upheld in India — in contrast, in the U.S., on President Donald Trump’s watch, the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality regulations that had been put in place by the Barack Obama administration. The repeal was ostensibly to allow ISPs and broadband providers to invest in new technology although evidence shows that such investment was not affected by the regulations. The other argument for the repeal has been a functional one, suggesting that the Internet is very different today, controlled by a handful of big companies, unlike the much more egalitarian environment earlier; and that therefore, the principle is redundant now. This is misleading. In India, for instance, the steep growth in Internet access and use has allowed for newer services to thrive. The government should now ensure that net neutrality is followed in practice.

Transatlantic rift

Donald Trump shakes the NATO consensus further by talking defence budgets

The summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation leaders in Brussels was expected to be tense, given the widening rift in the Western alliance over the U.S.’s imposition of trade tariffs. But President Donald Trump’s call to member-countries to double their annual defence expenditure to 4% of GDP has the potential for greater harm than his repeated denigration of NATO or his disregard for diplomatic niceties. European countries have for some time been smarting underWashington’s persistent attack on their failure to honour the current commitment to raise their defence budgets to 2% of annual output by 2024. NATO members were reminded of the unequal burden-sharing within the organisation via letters despatched from the White House ahead of the summit. Mr. Trump can launch his latest offensive largely due to the latitude he enjoys on account of the U.S. spending well in excess of 3% of GDP on defence in 2017-18. He took aim especially at Germany, highlighting in particular the incongruity between its military spending and huge trade surplus with the U.S. A relatively recent dimension to the diatribe is the attack on Germany’s large imports of gas from Russia, a divisive issue within Europe, particularly after the threats posed by Moscow’s regional ambitions. Besides putting Chancellor Angela Merkel in a spot, it served to deflect attention from criticism across the Atlantic of Mr. Trump’s proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin and their bilateral meeting in Helsinki.

Notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s claims, Europe’s expenditure on defence has been on the rise since 2014, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). One explanation for this shift is the security situation following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. IISS data also show that Washington’s commitment to Europe’s security is just over 5% of the total U.S. defence budget. Within that, its contribution to NATO’s common funding is an estimated 22.1%, besides investments in other initiatives. Some of Mr. Trump’s predecessors in the White House had sought to address this imbalance, but without ever questioning the commitment of Washington’s allies to the bloc’s collective defence, or using it as a bargaining chip. Conversely, exploiting Europe’s greater dependence on the U.S. security umbrella serves to bolster Mr. Trump’s domestic nationalist constituency ahead of the November mid-term Congressional elections. While not all Republicans may approve of the President’s offensive against American allies, many prefer to emphasise substance over style. The communiqué issued after the summit reiterates the group’s resolve to meet the 2024 deadline on defence spending. But Mr. Trump seems impatient on achieving the target sooner, without spelling out his reasons. The world will learn more about Mr. Trump’s America First agenda in the coming months.

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