For more than two years, Facebook has been fighting off criticisms of its effort to bring Internet access to underserved regions. Free Basics, an app that grants users access to Facebook and other select services for free, is the social network’s attempt to connect people across the world. But to others, Free Basics and its umbrella program, Internet.org, represent a potential violation of net neutrality—of an open Internet—and yet another way for Facebook to assert its influence over what people see and read.
Last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) published a consultation paper that debated the legality of Free Basics, following a ban on the service in December. To safeguard the program, Facebook started a campaign on its platform that directed users to send the TRAI an autofill form pledging their support. In response, the TRAI penned an email on Monday that accuses Facebook of rallying people to its cause through a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.”
Facebook’s form, the TRAI argued, offered users a pre-written message that failed to reflect what the regulator wrote in its consultation paper. And in the informative blurb accompanying the form, the paper wasn’t mentioned at all. As such, the TRAI felt the questions it raised about how telecom providers should price services were not adequately addressed. Instead, Facebook dismissed the TRAI’s complaints with this section on its “Save Free Basics” page:
A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services – even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the campaign managed to draw 11 million supporters—1.4 million of whom sent their own message rather than using the pre-written one provided by Facebook. On Thursday, the TRAI will be hosting a discussion on the legality of Free Basics; the regulator plans to rule on the issue by the end of January.
After Free Basics was barred in December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a Times of India piece outlining the benefits of the service. (One oft-repeated bit: “We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty.”) Zuckerberg likened Internet access to heath care and education, and pointed out that the ad-free version of Facebook in Free Basics wasn’t bringing in money.
“Research shows that the biggest barriers to connecting people are affordability and awareness of the internet,” he wrote. “Many people can’t afford to start using the internet. But even if they could, they don’t necessarily know how it can change their lives.”