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Jana roils the neutrality debate

Jana roils the neutrality debate
When Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, toured India in October last year he was royalty. He met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the telecom minister, visited a rural school and created a lot of buzzes. At the conference on his new venture Internet.org, he reiterated his philosophy that the world needs access to free Internet and that his new company would provide it.

In February 2015, Internet.org was officially launched in India in partnership with Reliance Communications. Thereafter, Zuckerberg lost his halo. He has been portrayed as a wily entrepreneur who is undermining Net neutrality with Internet.org. What the service offers to the users is free access to select websites while making rival websites chargeable. So while users can access Bing for free, they have to pay to access Google. This is sold as a “solution for poor countries” but critics accuse the scheme as a “solution to keep countries poor”.

At around the same time, Bharti Airtel launched a variation called Airtel Zero in a tie-up with several partners. While Internet.org has brokered deals with operators to allow users to access a select bouquet of websites and Internet services for free, in the case of Airtel Zero, the telecom flipped the concept to let developers pay the cost of their visitors’ traffic. Both ventures fall in the zero-rating category. In Chile, for instance, such offerings are barred by law.

There was an unprecedented outcry against these schemes because a whole lot of Net activists saw 
these as a violation of Net neutrality principles because there should be no discrimination on data, content, site, platform, or application. Outraged activists said these “walled garden” plans were not just anti-competitive but would also break up the Internet into several pieces, with parts emerging as the enclaves of the rich and privileged.

In <g data-gr-id="55">defence</g>, Zuckerberg wrote a piece saying his plan was helping millions in poor countries. “By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.org offers free access in local languages to basic Internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging.” By lowering the cost of accessing the Internet, “more than 800 million people in nine countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org,” he said.

But the widespread censure had its effect. Travel portal Cleartrip.com and media companies Times Group and NDTV withdrew from Internet.org while one of India’s largest online retailers Flipkart put an end to discussions on joining Airtel Zero.

But newer business models by Internet companies are unsettling the old certainties about Net neutrality. On May 6, Jana, one of the largest app advertising platforms after Facebook, launched a user retention service called Jana Loyalty with which it aims to give free access to the Internet to a billion people in the emerging world. The Boston-based company has set the cat among the pigeons by making a significant change to zero-rating offerings. In an interview to The Hindu, Jana founder Nathan Eagle explained that the Jana app mCent, which is sponsored by companies who wish to drive usage of their apps, does not follow the walled garden approach. There are no exclusive deals and the app has been integrated with every telco in India, which means that anyone with an Android phone can access it. The company reimburses app users for downloading and using an app, but the reimbursed data can then be used anywhere on the Internet in an unrestricted way.

The big incentive is that users also get additional free data on top of what it costs them to download or try an app within mCent and this data can also be used howsoever they choose: to surf the web, download a new app, or watch a video. Eagle says his company is a strong supporter of Net neutrality and that Jana’s idea is to make the entire Internet more affordable to everyone and at the same time, make it less costly for people to explore useful new apps. Another point he makes is that Jana “works with app developers of all sizes—from small, local app developers in India, to large global brands like Amazon and Tencent”.

So where does Jana fit in the <g data-gr-id="43">polarised</g> Net neutrality debate? Is it a leaky walled garden or a new entity altogether? That the activists have not reacted to this latest initiative to get the next billion on to the Internet appears to indicate that they are stumped. Down to Earth
Latha Jishnu

Latha Jishnu

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