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India Has Blocked Facebook’s Free Basics Internet Service

It's a massive win for net neutrality advocates.

[Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images]

India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) has blocked Facebook’s Free Basics Internet service in the country, reports the Times of India. The ruling was announced by the TRAI in an order called the "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulation." The order states that "no service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content."

The move was widely expected but will still come as a major blow to Facebook and its Free Basics service. Free Basics is the name of the app delivering services from Facebook’s Internet.org, which the company says is meant to bring free or affordable Internet to the poorer populations of less developed countries.

Despite its seemingly altruistic motives, supporters of net neutrality in the country said Free Basics created a two-tiered Internet: a limited one for the poor and a free and open one for those who could pay for it. Free Basics would have given free Internet access to everyone in India, but would have limited its users to certain sites or content decided on by Facebook itself. The BBC says the free content included selected local news and weather forecasts, the BBC site itself, Wikipedia, and some health sites.

After rolling out Free Basics in India early last year, the service was suspended after a public outcry, pending regulatory investigation. During this time Facebook launched a media blitz defending Free Basics, with Mark Zuckerberg himself writing an op-ed in The Times of India about how Free Basics protects net neutrality.

But the public—and India’s telecom regulatory authority—disagreed. In announcing today’s order, the TRAI said that "no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person... that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content." The only exemption is for emergency services or at times of public emergency, reports the Times.

To be clear, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India did not issue the order against Facebook’s Free Basics itself. The order encompasses all differential data pricing and zero-rated services in the country, including Airtel's zero-rated platform Airtel Zero. Facebook has not yet publicly commented on the TRAI order.

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