India has just banned Facebook’s “Free Basics” in the true spirit of upholding Net Neutrality.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) banned multiple programs, including “Free Basics,” an attempt by Facebook to offer a specific set of services for free through preferential mobile data programs. TRAI has legally prevented all mobile carriers and broadband providers in the country from charging customers based on content.
In what could be considered as one of the biggest wins for Net Neutrality advocates, TRAI has made sure that telecom service providers who offer data plans can’t vary charges as per what services or content they access over the Internet, reported the Hacker News. While TRAI hasn’t specifically singled out Facebook’s “Free Basics,” it did enact a specific law that would undeniably end any attempt by any company, henceforth, to offer different pricing based on content. In other words, all data will be considered just that, data. The law in the country now states as follows.
“Under Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016, no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.”
Facebook’s “Free Basics” was essentially an attempt to get mobile carriers to offer data programs that favor some Internet services over others. The regulation followed intense debate for almost an entire year on how to extend the Internet to India’s poorest citizens.
A signature project of Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, Free Basics was heavily promoted in India, as well as in developed countries, on numerous occasions. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has always maintained Free Basics was an earnest attempt to offer mobile users, in three dozen countries, free access to a text-only version of the gargantuan social network as well as to certain news, health, job, and other services. Facebook insists that Free Basics is an altruistic project to introduce the poor and the technologically unskilled to the potential of the Internet, reported New York Times.
Facebook had earlier tried to offer Free Basics through Internet.org. The core functionality of both the platforms was pretty much the same. However, Internet.org was strongly ridiculed as an attempt to offer preferential treatment to a certain section of the internet, while making majority of the cyberspace rather difficult or unsavory to access.
India is home to more than 132 million Facebook users. The social media platform tried to offer the free, but severely restricted, service through Reliance Communications, a local mobile phone carrier, and immediately faced a severe backlash through videos and social media campaigns, including online petitions. Interestingly, Facebook’s Free Basics wasn’t the only program in India. Airtel, a large telecom company with presence in India as well as Africa, was trying to offer free but restricted service, which it had cleverly labeled “Airtel Zero,” a play on words, along the lines of “Zero Rated Services.”
Despite trying to offer Internet.org and facing a temporary ban last year, the social media platform, did not give up. Attempting to win public support, Facebook reportedly spent nearly $45 million promoting Free Basics with billboards and newspaper advertisements, reported the Verge.
Trying hard to push adoption of Free Basics, Zuckerberg personally lobbied against the new rules, including writing an opinion piece in the Times of India. The platform even attempted to garner support through online petitions, which the regional experts claimed cleverly played on the word “Free,” to secure sympathy from gullible internet users.
While India is one of the pioneers to enact such a clearly defined law that protects Net Neutrality in letter and spirit, the United States is investigating to establish whether zero-rated services comply with its own net neutrality rules.
A carefully worded statement from Facebook followed the announcement of the law on Monday which reads as follows.
“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, nonexclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”
Apart from Free Basics, Facebook is engaged in other projects that are aimed at delivering internet access to remote regions of India, where villages are still quite common. While TRAI has banned the zero-rated services, it has urged telecom companies to expand internet access to such regions through other means such as offering limited free data, which still allows access to the entire internet.
[Photo by Manjunath Kiran/Getty Images]