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10

At around 830 pm on Monday, Nov. 21, my phone was stolen from me. The incident occurred at the crowded Saket Metro bus stop, while I was inside a feeder bus and the thief outside a window. By the time I could get off the bus and chase him, he had disappeared in the crowd. I looked around for a while before returning home, determined to do all I legally and possibly could in such a case, but feeling hopeless and dejected.

Primary concern, ensuring security

I filed an e-FIR, used Android Device Manager to try and locate the phone, placed a request to erase data with the Manager as well as my office IT service center. I knew that I had logged out of banking apps and they could not be accessed without MPins, but the PayTM app had login details saved. So I tried to lock my PayTM account via their website. Shocker: to verify my login they needed me to enter, apart from my e-mail/phone number and password, an OTP which I could only receive via SMS or call. I wondered why they could not e-mail me the OTP as well, which is standard practice in 2-factor authentication. I then used their customer care page to request a block on my account. I received an acknowledgement of this request almost instantly, (940 pm, Nov. 21, query #10133775). However, I received no reply, so I took to Twitter (1159 pm, Nov. 21):

Next morning, I see no response to my e-mail, but see this response to the tweet (735 am, Nov. 22):

So I sent them another e-mail request which was again acknowledged (0904 am, Nov. 22, query #10152004). Again, no reply, even by the evening, so I reply to their tweet:

This tweet, unsurprisingly, did not get any response. In the meanwhile, I had not only got a replacement SIM card from Airtel, but also had the SIM cards activated within the estimated time of 4-6 hours, despite being told that there may be a further delay as my number had been barred due to filing the FIR. I was thus able to receive the OTP now via the on call option (SMS services took a further 24 hours, as estimated, to get reactivated), and logged into PayTM.

It took me less than five minutes to change my password, and also log myself out of all devices. But I had to wait nearly a full day to do it because of the infuriating lack of response from PayTM. Compare this with the speed of transactions on PayTM. If you had to wait 22 hours for your PayTM wallet to be recharged, or if PayTM took 22 hours to pay your Uber cab fare, they would not remain in business very long, would they? So why do they assume they can take their own sweet time about customer service?

I quickly used up the balance in my PayTM wallet in order to close the account. I waited for a day to ensure those transactions did come through, and then tried closing my account this evening. Surprise, surprise. There is no option on the site to close your account, not even among their myriad customer care options. My requesting customer care to do so got me the no-less-surprising response that "Paytm account cannot be deleted, but we can block it for you please help us with the mail form your registered email id stating the same." Bank accounts can be closed, social media accounts can be deleted (I just deleted my WhatsApp account this evening, in under 5 minutes), but a PayTM account cannot be deleted. Why is this so?

Again, for a digital service, PayTM's frankly ridiculous, repetitive insistence on e-mail confirmation is nothing short of painful, especially given that there is NO guarantee your e-mail will actually merit a response from them, as so amply demonstrated by this experience.

Update: @Paytmcare chose to respond to this story via both tweet (0242am, Nov. 24) and e-mail (0615am, Nov. 24). The tweet asked me to check my email with reference to the request for closing my account (query #10291894). Only, their reply was to my e-mail of Nov. 22 (query #10152004). Not only did they get this mixed up, their response was on how I could get a new mobile number updated in my account while my old number was inaccessible - whereas my query had been about blocking my account. At this point, I could only conclude that PayTM's customer care is, in addition to being poorly managed, is also poorly trained to respond to customer queries. And yes, PayTM has not yet confirmed that my account has been blocked, as of 0925am, Nov. 25.

For those interested, I have Storified the full exchange with @Paytmcare on Twitter, and my tweetstorm on the overall experience, here:

https://storify.com/godavar/a-misadventure-in-digital-dystopia-my-paytm-story

P.S. the image for this post is a fully deliberate reminder of the fact that PayTM chose to be cheerleaders for the disastrous #demonetization in India.

 

12

This post explains Net neutrality and the challenge facing it in India for all of you who can't exactly figure out what is going on. This is not intended to be comprehensive, but it gives you the bare bones of the issue and ideas on how to find out more to form your own opinion.

Net Neutrality is the idea that internet access not be manipulated to favor some websites over others. Unfortunately the user will still be limited by the internet package they purchase. Let us be upfront.

So why, if you don't have a website is this debate important to you?

When you surf the internet for entertainment or information or engagement, your freedom is at stake when you are manipulated toward using some sites over others. While some deals are transparent - in the form of packs - "100 MBof Facebook data free with 100MB 2g" or whatever, other deals may simply manifest as one website opening rapidly while another is agonizingly slow. So, your tendency to go with whichever is ready fast plays out over hundreds of thousands of users. Some sites make a windfall from your unintentional bias (that has been induced by technology) while others may become extinct. Do you intend to be biased?

So what if I am biased? I like fast websites, and they made the effort to be fast for me.

Not exactly. Throttling is more like other websites being made slower. But there are tangible disadvantages to you too. Let us begin with saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. When Flipkart invests its money to get you on their site, it only does it because it earns more from your visit. When your network ties up with one operator, it is essentially like the taxi driver who takes you to the "cheapest hotel" and earns a commission for bringing you. You have nothing more than the driver's word that it is the cheapest.

If you are looking for a laptop and get an array of prices from Flipkart fast, while its competing sites will load agonizingly slow, chances are high that you miss finding the cheapest option, because you will be bored surfing slow sites while one blazing fast one is tantalizingly close. The difference in the laptop costs would probably buy you several data upgrades that could let you surf and find the best choice.

But I don't buy online.

How about Facebook (which has a history of offering user data to governments) being the only social network you can use because it is fast and even if you are willing to use a safer one, all your contacts are on Facebook, because it is fast.

What happens when you have to buy data packs and what looked like a FREE Facebook pack becomes a collection of 100MB packs each coming with something else free? One for WhatsApp, one for Google, another for youtube.... Would it be cheaper, really? It isn't cheap while you get the "free Flopkart" either. Only less visible, because you will easily use up the 100MB non-Facebook data and you're getting only one pack.

[tweetthis]Is "Free" really free? #NetNeutrality[/tweetthis]

What is the price we pay for free packs?
What is the price we pay for free packs?

Would the cheap packs still be free if you purchased them a-la-carte and added sites you use often one by one - for a price? You'd have to, because using them normally would give you the slow versions or be costly if you use them a lot. How many sites do you use in a month?

What if you are an activist or blogger?

If you get a whim to start a blog, you can just start one today. Without Net Neutrality, your blog would be like the tree that fell unseen, unheard - did you even make a blog if no one reads it? If people get bored waiting for it to load and find something better to do? This page loaded in 2 seconds. If it loaded in 8, would you have waited to read something that says "pay attention here"?

There are hundreds of blogs starting daily. Causes. Initiatives. Businesses. Someone finds a problem with degradation of environment in their area, starts a website to converge resources and information to fight it. Today, if you want to start a website, you buy a domain name that costs about Rs.300 for the first year and some webhosting space and you're in business. If you are like me, you already have a server and one domain name later, you add a new website to it. New initiative launched for a net cost of Rs.300 and some effort. What if all these people would be seen normally worldwide, but achingly slow in India, where their target audience is?

Or, the cost of starting a website just went up to Rs.300 + hosting + Airtel hafta + Idea hafta + Vodafone hafta...... 20 operators later, and most of your website running cost would be about PREVENTING artificial interference from driving away your visitors instead of whatever you are trying to do. Or, of course you can pray that all your visitors have the patience of a saint.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles="true"]Without #NetNeutrality most of the cost of website would be in preventing it being silenced by paying off providers[/tweetthis]

When the Net Neutrality debate was raging in the US, activists had organized a day when websites participating in the protest deliberately slowed down their websites to show people what the internet would be like without Net Neutrality. It was the 10th September - day after my son's birthday. I will remember it for a long time, because almost none of my visitors read a second page on any of the six blogs I had activated it on, on that day. From thousands of pageviews, that day was a few hundred. Who'd want to read another page on a site that just.wont.load? I did it deliberately. This would become my reality unless I was willing to shell out money for faster access.

There is a protocol coming up. Http/2. It is already released of sorts. Google and big sites implement it. By the end of the year, a very popular server called Nginx will be implementing it. Sites worldwide will become much, much faster. Except for sites that won't pay these middlemen - in India.

The Telecom industry has been showing huge profits.

This isn't about not being able to afford. It is about exploiting a ready resource for the profit of some cronies. I have said this before, during the debate on FDI and I say it now. We are not used to thinking of the Indian population as a national resource. Yet, if you can harness something that earns you a rupee from each Indian a month, you'll earn a cool 1.2 billion every month. Whether it is by opening the market so foreign companies can profit, or luring citizens to services you make deals with, so those services earn from it. And make no mistake, even if you buy nothing on Facebook, write nothing, even checking your notifications loads pages and earns Facebook ad revenues. Notice how the notifications are designed so that you can NEVER make out which post got the like from your friend till you actually click the link to find out. That's a page load.

I am not trying to be paranoid or even grudge anyone advertizing revenues. Only pointing out that your convenience is not the goal, the goal is revenue. But it wastes YOUR time. But other services that may be way more user friendly will not be able to compete with a network promoted by every telecom operator in the country. Even if you are willing to risk a slower network, people you network with will likely not.

In other words, this is a manipulation, and for all the claims of "giving Facebook free", as Rajesh Mathews put it, I have yet to come across a single free data pack on any mobile provider's website. You have to purchase data, and you get their crony for "free", which will be recovered from your hide in other ways.

Data is data. What you use it for is your business. When you purchase data, it is being sold because it is profitable selling it. The idea that existing data is not profitable and hence principles of equality must be ignored is discrimination and illegal.

The idea that there isn't enough spectrum and therefore existing services that are ALREADY MAKING MASSIVE PROFITS can hold India's internet hostage for their own windfalls is plain and ugly cronyism, if the government allows it.

2

Even without adding #NetNeutrality to the mix, the relationship between the average consumer and any telecom services provider in India is a tetchy one at best. Irrespective of whether you opt for prepaid or post-paid services, you seem to be forever haggling over available services and the pricing thereof, and, later, about the quality of said services. What makes it worse is that most telecoms have been overzealous to cash in on a vastly viable opportunity without investing in consumer awareness. Thus, most consumers are left arguing with customer care executives who are themselves rarely well-informed about the products and services offered.

Into this already bubbling cauldron falls the fresh bone of contention which has been dubbed the #NetNeutrality debate. Before launching into it though, I must admit to not being an expert in this domain, and am only offering my own understanding as a consumer of these services. In essence, the debate has everything to do with the Internet, as may be surmised, and how it is packaged as a product. When we sign up for data services offered by a telecom company, we agree to pay a certain fee for a certain amount of data downloaded and/or uploaded to the Internet via that company’s network. Now, many of these data service providers threw in such freebies as offering free access to certain websites along with certain data plans. So if you purchased data services for your phone from Company X, you might not be charged for the data consumed on Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp, for instance.

While this seems like a fairly innocuous marketing strategy – we are all suckers for freebies, this idea has its flipside, which is what the #NetNeutrality debate is centred around. Now, telecom services are suggesting they will charge more for data used towards certain services, specifically those using Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, (e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Viber), which allow users to call each other for “free”. It is important to note that “free” is not actually “free” –you may not be paying for the call itself, but you are paying for the data transferred over the Internet, whether on your mobile or other Internet connection.

The rationale offered by the service providers is that, with consumers making calls through these applications, they are losing out on call revenues. This cleverly sidesteps the fact that consumers may be paying less for voice, but they are using and paying more for data services. Given that voice and video services generally consume a fairly large amount of data, it can very well be argued that the gain in data revenues will more than compensate for loss in voice revenues. But the argument is about far more than economics. As the adage goes, it is not about the price, it is about the principle.

And the principle is that those offering data services at cost should not be concerned with how that data is utilized, for the simple reason that it infringes on the personal choice of the consumer. This aspect is highlighted by the perversion of the freebie idea; telecom companies can support one product over a competing product for, say, online entertainment, and force their consumers to use the free product rather than pay extra for the product of their choice. This has the potential to create a cartel of services which can then monopolize consumer “decisions”, and, so to speak, break up the internet.

Underlying this debate are the varying perceptions about the Internet – for the consumer it is a medium, like television or radio, through which to access much more than just information or entertainment. But for the service provider it is a product that can be packaged many ways. Already, Internet packages are offered based on quantity of data (300 MB, 1 GB, etc.), type of data network (2G, 3G, etc.), and even time of access (night-time specials, etc.). As already mentioned, avid users of Facebook, etc. can even purchase data packs tailored to give them free access. Such packs also violate net neutrality, and perhaps consumers should have wondered about the catch before queuing up for the freebies, but then the Internet has always conjured up visions of Utopia.

So what happens now? Are consumers supposed to just bend over and let telecom service providers stomp over them simply because they forgot that there are no free lunches? Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a consultation happening in India, hosted by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as a lead-up to which a public discussion is raging on – where else? – the Internet. For the average consumer, the issue may appear to be too overwhelming, but, unfortunately, it is the price for lunches already eaten without regard to cost. Hopefully, this will be a one-time payment that settles not just the debt but also the debate for the foreseeable future.

If you are still wondering what on earth is happening, here’s the low-down. The Internet has become the proverbial goose that’s laid far too many golden eggs and now those seeing themselves as its owners are salivating at the thought of cutting it up. You can raise your voice and prevent this from happening, thus preserving #NetNeutrality. The villains in this story include some very familiar names, like Airtel and Vodafone and Reliance. But unlike Bollywood movies, no one hero or heroine can step up and take on them all. On the Internet, we are all heroes and heroines; equally, we can all become the villains or the sidekicks. The choice is ours, to write a story that sounds something like that of Appu and the bus operators.

14

After I published my last post on the Airtel saga with the latest threats, things kind of escalated. It got picked up in social media, Airtel Presence got in touch with me again. And a reporter from Midday contacted me to cover the story.

She made calls to verify the story with Airtel.

I got calls from Airtel not to tweet further on the matter and that they were working to resolve it. I agreed to do so for a while till I saw what progress was being made.

Then I got a letter from their official address this time.

Letter of settlement from official Airtel address

This time, it mentions the amount payable without any discounts as opposed to before. Full amount.

I replied to that email asking yet again for details of my gprs usage.

No reply.

Then I got a call from the Airtel representative Kunal again, and he wanted to include someone called Rahul. They told me that the amount I got billed for is correct and to pay the balance.

I again requested for the bill with usage details. This time, after five months of asking, I got them. (more further below)

I told them that I wanted to complain against the treatment I got as an Airtel customer from their representatives making the threatening calls. It was as important as my festering problem with my Airtel bill That started way long ago, when Airtel SMSd me to tell me my usage exceeded my limit.

They replied that they would send me the bills I had requested for. I asked them if they had heard what I said. They said yes, I would get the bills.

So I repeated that I want to make a complaint against the employees making threatening calls to me.

They again replied that they would send me the bills I had asked for. I asked them if they heard what I said. They said I would get the bills.

So I said "I want to complain agains the employees who made threatening calls against me. - Did you hear this"

They replied that they had taken care of the calls and I would not get them again.

I said, "No. I said I want action against those two specific employees and to know what was done about them"

They replied that I would not get any more threatening calls.

I said I want to make a complaint and with complaint number and all.

They replied that first they will solve my billing issue, then address anything else.

I find this inspired deafness most intriguing. Why the refusal to acknowledge a request of complaint of harassment at all? Why not address an urgent harassment issue immediately?

The only guess I can make is that if it is routine practice and accepted to threaten customers as a part of recovering payments, then how can they target only two for action? Action that is regular practice? They were doing their jobs, no?

In the meanwhile, I checked my bill. I am being billed an astonishing Rs.7580.70/- for what amounts to 492MB of data. For a general reference - you can hit this usage in a couple of days by watching a film or two on youtube and checking email (your mileage may vary). Here's the bill.

Notice the difference.

In the meanwhile, information is flooding in on many, many such instances of overbilling and unhelpful customer support. People are contacting me to tell their own stories. And it seems it is not only Airtel. Many people speaking about Vodafone, a few about other providers.

After all, if everyone is stinking, then no one is stinking, right?

33

I have been having trouble with Airtelfor a long time, since I got suddenly overbilled out of the blue and from a normal bill of about Rs.350/- I got a bill of more than Rs.9,000/- There had been no change in my usage.

I raised the alarm when I got an SMS warning that the bill had gone over Rs.6,000/- and it still kept rising.

To compound that, complaints I made got terminated arbitrarily saying that I didn't answer my phone. Strangely, all their calls asking me to pay get answered just fine. Why would I do that?

Then, Airtel conned me out of Rs.2,500/- in the name of a settlement, which they recorded as a part payment. They had refused to give a settlement letter at that time, saying it was normal policy.

I discovered this, when the day my number was supposed to start working again came and went and I called to find out.

Then the menacing phone calls from Airtel's legal department started. Relentless serial calls asking for money. To the extent where I filed a complaint, and the girl called me to taunt me and threaten me further because I filed a complaint.

I followed up with the police station, and the calls stopped.

They have started again. Again it is the legal department. I explained the paroblem, and they sent me a "settlement email" from theglobalconsultants@gmail.com which legal process will accept this as official Airtel communication?

They want me to pay on the basis of this. This time, they claim it will really be settlement.

Dear Madam,

This is with reference to your A/C no 109-100362836 for mobile no 9892469127.

We would like to inform you that your above mention account b has an Outstanding of  Rs. 6738.85/- will have NIL balance if you pay a sum of Rs. 4700/- (Four Thousand Seven Hundred Only/-) after adjusting Deposit of Rs. 0/- in one monthly installment (s) vide Cheque/Cash/pay order payable in favor of BhartiAirtel Ltd.

In process of settlement if your banker returns any of your cheque (s), the above settlement stands null & void and you would be liable to pay the entire outstanding as on date.

Please acknowledge this letter as a token of acceptance on or before 27th Sep 2011 failing with this will be treated as null & void.

Thanking You

Rima Shetty (Advocate)

So we have here an advocate who claims to be consultant, or goons who are faking both the "advocate" and "consultant". Seeing as how there is no official website, phone number or anything at all indicating this is a legal entity.

Which, essentially is no different from when they conned me out of the earlier payment - this is not communication from Airtel. Last time, they had refused, and said that it was not procedure to give settlements officially, then took money and gave a receipt that said it is not valid for settlements.

This time, they are offering a letter, but not from Airtel.

And the accompanying calls are threatening too. Last time, they threatened to access my call records and call all the people I had called to demand my payment. This time, they are speaking of my relatives paying.

The woman asked me if I was a beggar, and then told me I was a beggar, and described some dargah somewhere where people like me can get money and to go there and earn money and pay them, etc.

I live tweeted some of this shit.

You know the dargah,. go there, beg money, pay your bill. Or your relatives will have to pay. ~ Airtel "legal" department. Sneha Patil
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
You will get calls, that you will wish you had paid. You haven't seen how we recover money. ~ Airtel "legal" department. Sneha Patil
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Make all the police complaints you want, you can't do anything to us. Pay up. I am sending my man ~ Airtel "legal" department.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
If you don't pay, all your relatives will have to pay. Have you left them all? Are you a beggar? Go to beg and pay. ~ Airtel "legal" dept
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
"The Global Consultants" - theglobalconsultants@gmail.com THIS is Airtel's legal dept? "Advocate Reema Shetty" sent email.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
@ShivAroor Kidding you not. Live tweeting while on phone @airtel_in
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
43473913 is the number from where I am getting the calls. - Airtel's "legal" department.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
The Airtel Saga http://bit.ly/qIf2nA http://bit.ly/rgbQPz http://bit.ly/nNxqpN http://bit.ly/mZ6G0g
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
The only sorrow is that I didn't record that phone call, because I couldn't figure out how. Tweets can't convey that taunting tone.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Now that my personal problems seem to have paused a bit, I suppose I should take time out and do the consumer court thing.
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
But really, it isn't only about me and one bill or settlement, but the "system" of threatening people and selling their personal information
Vidyut
September 28, 2011
Who gives airtel the right to sell my outstanding to some third party goon for extortion? Is not a violation of my information?
Vidyut
September 28, 2011

As usual, @airtel_presence has replied that they are looking into the matter. I doubt if the goons care about them.

On the other hand, now that I am back home for however long, I can do the consumer courts thing.

The way I see it, the original bill being inflated, and complaints disregarded was one part of it. Then, my information being sold to a third party - this is not my agreement with Airtel. And then, the criminal harassment and threats to people around me.

Sure, they may not act on them, but how do I know? How do I know that they will not harm me or my family? Who is responsible if elderly relatives get health problems if faced with such threats?