India bans Facebook’s Free basics with a new Net neutrality law

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Facebook has come under fire over its Free Basics program in India and other parts of the world. The service — which was launched in several Indian regions in November 2015 — is a partnership between Facebook and the Reliance mobile network to offer people, who otherwise can’t afford cellular data, access to selected online services at no charge via a free app.

Opponents of Free Basics argue that the principle of Net neutrality, which calls for Internet service providers to provide equal access to all content sources, is paramount. They contend that this principle supersedes providing India’s poor with their initial access to the Internet.

Updated on 02/08/2015 by Saqib Shah: Added news that India has officially banned zero-rating mobile Internet services including Free Basics by Facebook. Also added statement from Mark Zuckerberg.

After months of back and forth, temporary bans, and other blocking measures; the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), has passed a law that effectively bans zero-rating mobile Internet services such as Free Basics by Facebook.

A temporary block had already been placed on the Free Basics app, previously available to over 100 million Indians via local mobile carrier Reliance, whilst the TRAI consulted with stakeholders on whether providers should be allowed to charge differential prices for Internet services.

The new ruling, detailed in a TRAI press release, makes it clear that India will not allow service providers to charge “discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.” Although the ruling applies to all companies providing similar services, it was the publicity (and subsequent backlash) surrounding Free Basics by Facebook that set the debate in motion. The new rules in full, state:

  1. No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.
  2. No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation.
  3. Reduced tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, or at times of public emergency has been permitted.
  4. Financial disincentives for contravention of the regulation have also been specified.

The TRAI claims that companies that violate the ruling will face fines of 50,000 rupees per day (which equates to approximately $740 per day), up to a maximum of 5 million rupees. Facebook was handed a slight glimmer of hope in the form of the TRAI’s decision to review the ruling after a period of two years, or at an earlier date if relevant.

Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment, but its CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a post on Facebook about the new law.

“While we’re disappointed with today’s decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the Internet.”

He added that the program’s goal is to ensure that all of India has access to the Internet. Zuckerberg pointed out that more than a billion people in the country don’t have Internet access, and expressed his belief that “connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities.”

“We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them,” Zuckerberg concluded.

Previously, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asked mobile network provider Reliance to stop the Free Basics by Facebook service. It seems the social network was correct in its assumption that some form of restriction to its free mobile Internet service was imminent.

It is thought that the temporary ban will be in place until the Net neutrality issue is resolved in the Indian Parliament. Referring to Facebook’s initiative, an Indian government official stated the following to the Times of India: “The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen.”

For its part, Facebook claims that it is still committed to the Free Basics initiative.

Facebook fights back

Even before the ban in India took effect, Facebook — sensing danger — asked its users to sign a petition addressed to India’s telecom regulatory authority backing the service. The social network also controversially extended that petition to its U.S. and U.K. users, too.

As some of you may have noticed on your feeds, the ‘I support Free Basics in India’ notification contains an automatic message proclaiming the user’s support for Facebook’s “digital equality” initiative. Facebook already has a huge user base in India, which begs the question why would it risk politicizing its users outside of the country — in particular regarding an issue that they hold no sway over?

According to Facebook, a “mistake” on its part caused the notification to be turned on for a short period of time to users outside of India, reports Recode. Accidental or not, the move risks creating further backlash for the initiative.

U.S. users are already criticizing the firm’s actions on Reddit, with some warning that the petition auto-signs if you press the ‘scroll down’ button. Others have questioned the morality behind Facebook’s use of its own site to participate in the politics of a country in which it operates.

Since the launch of Facebook’s initiative in India, an online petition against zero-rating services, such as Free Basics, and in favor of Net neutrality has been signed by 340,000 people in the country. Additionally, the scheme itself came under fire when it was claimed that its earlier iteration, entitled ‘Internet.org,’ blurred Facebook’s involvement in the program. Consequently, it was renamed ‘Free Basics by Facebook.’

Egypt has also blocked the service

India is not the only country that’s taken issue with Facebook’s Free Basics program. A mere week after India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority ordered a block on Free Basics, Egypt followed suit.

No further information from Egyptian authorities is currently available, although Facebook had the following to say on the matter to the AP: “We’re disappointed that Free Basics will no longer be available in Egypt. More than 1 million people who were previously unconnected had been using the Internet because of these efforts.”

The social network added it aims to resolve the situation soon. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has staunchly supported his company’s Free Basics service. Just two days ago, he penned an op-ed in the Times of India attacking critics of the initiative.

Opponents of the scheme cite Net neutrality concerns and Facebook’s monopolization of the Web in developing countries, such as India and Egypt.

Previous updates:

Updated 12/30/2015 12:00 p.m. (PT) by Saqib Shah: Added news that Egypt also blocked Facebook’s Free Basics.

Updated 12/23/2015 5:15pm by Saqib Shah: Added news of a temporary ban.

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