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Net neutrality legal guidelines prone to be examined in clearance for Facebook-Jio deal

The possibility of Facebook apps getting preferential treatment on Reliance Jio’s network will be a factor regulators will have to keep in mind while evaluating the deal.

While India has strong Net neutrality laws, they might be tested in a major way given the magnitude of the deal.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had adopted the principles of Net neutrality in July 2018, and continues to oversee the monitoring and enforcement functions regarding it.

“The deal needs to be evaluated from the Net neutrality point of view, since a large network provider will now also control the most dominant apps — Facebook and WhatsApp — on its platform. One can argue that they also had their own apps, but owning the network as well as the largest applications do raise some concerns,” a government official told ET on condition of anonymity.

Both Jio and Facebook are present across an ecosystem of apps and services targeted at internet users as well as small businesses, including Facebook’s marketplace offering.

Prasanth Sugathan, voluntary legal director at Software Freedom Law Center, believes that with Trai regulations in place, nothing can be done against Net neutrality, which according to him is a “comforting factor.”

“Unless Jio offers preferential access to WhatsApp or Facebook on its network, there will be no Net neutrality issues. Jio has confirmed that they would not do so and are committed to Net neutrality,” said Anirudh Rastogi, founder and managing partner, Ikigai Law.

In 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) effectively banned Facebook’s Free Basics programme from the country, ruling that the system and others like it violate the principles of Net neutrality. The programme was meant to offer free but limited internet access to users. At that time, Facebook had launched the service through a tie-up with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications.

“In theory, nothing should change. It will be speculative to link Net neutrality to the deal,” said Nikhil Narendran, partner at Trilegal.

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