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Vol.12 Issue 2 (2016)

Zero-Rating, Net Neutrality and the Progressive Realisation of Human Rights

Balaji Subramaniam

The net neutrality debate today, specifically with respect to zero-rating, is invariably characterised as a clash between the noble aspiration to universalise access on one hand, and a handful of “core values of the internet” on the other. Such framing makes for a lively dialogue – neutrality proponents can extol the virtues of an “open internet”, and can argue that access universalisation is impossible, and therefore any failed attempt toward that goal is not worth the risk of permanently altering the nature of the network.

Proponents of net neutrality argue that zero-rating would stifle innovation and distort consumer choice to create internet oligopolies – in a nutshell, that the practice is “anti-competitive, patronizing, and counter-productive”. Advocates of zero-rating need only point to the virtues of universal internet access – bridging the digital divide,10 as it were. It is possible, however, to re-articulate these values in terms that could transcend such a clash of interests.
Over this article, I argue that it is possible to carry out such a reformulation, and that this reformulation results in the subordination of some values to greater human rights claims. In Part I, I attempt to establish that internet access is fundamentally linked to the effective delivery of several human rights. In Part II, a model that optimises the realisation of the human rights claims previously enumerated is outlined. In Part III, the circumstances under which the human rights approach would be incompatible with the zero-rating debate is examined, which is then used to further refine the model.


B.A. LL.B. (hons.) Candidate 2018, NALSAR University of Law, hyderabad.

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