It is time to make Internet access a basic right for all Indians

May 13, 2023

Last year Facebook riled up the Internet community in India over its offer of free Internet. The problem was not free Internet, rather the fact that they wanted to control which websites and applications people get access to as part of such a “free” Internet.This is a problem of net neutrality i.e. making the use of Internet fair and equitable for both consumers and suppliers. Part of the Indian Internet community did not want Facebook to have special rights of being able to decide which websites were ok, and which were not as part of this “free” Internet.The idea of net neutrality emerges from other public utilities such as roads, telephone, where a fair fee be levied that offers everyone equal access and not just access for the wealthy or special interests.A few months ago, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had a consultation paper out on the long-term approach for treating Internet and net neutrality. However, through its ruling on Facebook’s initiative, TRAI made it quite clear that the Government believes in net neutrality. Also through the consultation paper it indicated that Internet access will likely be treated as a utility.These are all positive signs but I believe this is an esoteric debate. The real issue at hand we need to focus on is the underlying idea of Facebook’s free Internet access.For Narendra Modi’s Digital India program to become a reality we need to move the conversation back to ensuring access to all of our citizens. A Digital India doesn’t merely have suppliers, in this case the Government going digital. It also has consumers, primarily citizens being able to access e-governance and related services.Internet has not only been a game changer for the global economy in the last 25 plus years, it will continue to be a dominant game-changer for our generation. We need to ensure that none of our citizens are left behind as part of this rapid transformation. This means offering all Indians access to information, education, services, participation in government amongst others.However, the real challenge for India is how do we make this story of growth with Internet, an inclusive one. The answer lies in guaranteeing access to the Internet to the people of the country.The Digital India program does talk about initiatives such as universal access to mobile connectivity and creating common service centers that offer Internet but they do not go far enough to make Internet real for all people.Earlier this year, the Kerala government earmarked a fund to provide 20 lakh families an Internet connection either at subsidized rates or completely free of cost. They believe, if all of Government’s services are available online, they need to make sure all of their citizens can access them as well. Similarly, in a number of developed economies high speed Internet is a basic right.For Digital India to become a reality, we cannot have our citizens become part of a false dichotomy where citizens can theoretically access services but have no means to actually attain such access. The Government of India needs to guarantee such access.There are many ways to guarantee such access. It can be done through an infrastructure program, connection subsidies, through partnerships such as one with Google for railway stations or even through the legislature. I am not hung up on the means of how this can be attained, but I want the Right and Access to Internet to be real.For the human race to move forward we must adapt with the times. Whether it is convenient for us or not, we cannot leave our fellow citizens behind. There is a wise African proverb that says if you want go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.Venugopal Ganganna is the CEO of Langoor, a digital agency with offices across Australia, HK, Singapore, India and UAE.Originally published on – Deccan Herald