In India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has ruled that zero rating is a violation of network neutrality.

Now TRAI is trying to actually define what network neutrality actually means. It is complicated. 

Having outlawed zero rating, t is paradoxical to hear TRAI chief executive RS Sharma say “he is open to the idea of internet content being provided free of cost or at discounted rates, just like toll-free phone helplines.” 

That sounds like zero rating.

“We have no objection in general if someone decides to provide content free, or at a discounted rate, if the same is made available to subscribers of all mobile operators,” Sharma said.

Such comments are one reason a new TRAI consultation paper on net neutrality is seen by some strong network neutrality (no zero rating) proponents as reversing or modifying the initial ban on zero rating.

For the cynical, the new interpretation is an attempt to wiggle out of a tight place. Sharma has said that such subsidized content “does not violate net neutrality” and is not in variance with TRAI’s ban on zero rating.

One possible way of squaring that circle could be that sponsored data, or zero rating, could be deemed lawful if available to all mobile subscribers, not just subscribers of a single mobile provider.

Confused? It is not a surprise. Net neutrality is a great slogan, simple and seemingly all about fairness.

But it is proving much harder to define and regulate, since “fairness” is a subjective matter. Also, the whole point of “fairness” includes other objectives, such as innovation and investment.

As often happens, “who” the fairness is for remains contentious.