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Report: India Set To Reject Services Like Facebook’s Free Basics

The likely decision would be a huge win for net neutrality in the world’s second most populous country.

Report: India Set To Reject Services Like Facebook’s Free Basics
[Photo: Flickr user Richard Weil]

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is set to reject services like Facebook’s Free Basics and similar services that use differential pricing for data, reports the Times of India. The move would be a major win for net neutrality advocates in the country who say that such services are discriminatory and create a limited second-tier Internet for the poor.

Free Basics is the name of the app delivering services from Facebook’s Internet.org, Facebook’s initiative to bring free or affordable Internet to the poorer populations of less developed countries. Net neutrality critics, however, have been critical of Internet.org because it handpicks the sites and services users can access, locking them out of the public Internet most of the world uses. Critics say this creates a two-tiered Internet–-one for the poor and an open one for everyone else.

The debate over differential pricing, including free services like Facebook’s Free Basics, in the world’s second most populous country has been raging for years. Back in 2012 the TRAI published an open letter asking for comments from experts and consumers about differential data pricing for content services and if it was right for some sites and services to be zero-rated, or offered for free, on certain Internet packages while other sites and services would be blocked.

The open letter generated plenty of debate between tech companies and proponents of net neutrality in the country-–and Facebook soon launched a campaign to build support for its then-new Internet.org initiative. At first Internet.org and Free Basics attracted some prominent allies in India such as Osama Manzar, the director of India’s Digital Empowerment Foundation. However, when Manzar actually tried Free Basics for himself in early 2015 he said, "I feel betrayed — not only betrayed but upset and angry. He [Mark Zuckerberg] said we’re going to solve the problem with access and bandwidth. But Facebook is not the Internet."

After the use of Free Basics was suspended in India. Facebook picked up the pace of its campaigning efforts through the rest of 2015, which climaxed in December with op-eds written by Zuckerberg and a request for signatures from the company for a petition it put out to help save Free Basics.

But it now appears the company couldn’t convince the public, nor India’s regulators, that Free Basics–-and services like it–-are in the best interest of the country’s poorest people. As the Times of India reports, the TRAI is set to reject services like Free Basics and issue an official order within a week. A source familiar with TRAI’s decision told the Times that free or subsidized data packages that offer access to only a select services "are discriminatory and are against the concept of digital democracy. We will not allow them."

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