Facebook’s Free Basics Hits a Snag in India

by Matt Klassen on December 24, 2015

india-flagIt appears not everyone in the world wants Facebook’s version of the Internet after all, even if it’s free. According to a local report, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has ordered Facebook’s only Free Basics partner on the sub-continent, Reliance Communications, to immediately halt the service, suspending the free Internet offering until further notice.

But is this just a case of the TRAI playing the role of the Grinch this holiday season, stealing the Internet out from under people’s noses? I mean, what could be wrong with Facebook’s altruistic endeavour to bring the Internet to the unconnected billions, you might wonder. Well, a lot actually, particularly in India where it has a more robust Net Neutrality strategy in place.

Since its arrival in India, Facebook’s Free Basics has been widely criticized for violating the principles of Net Neutrality, potentially favouring sites in the Facebook ecosystem over others, and thus unfairly controlling Internet traffic. Further, critics see it as a way of enslaving the unconnected billions into Facebook’s version of the Internet, ostensibly creating a two-tier Internet, where only those who can pay get unfettered access to the online world.

That’s not to say that Facebook will go down without a fight, as the social network has taken to the Internet to plead its case, that its Internet.org initiative and its Free Basics services are a boon to all humanity and serve as the best way to bring the benefits of online access to the vast majority of the world.

“Free Basics gives people access to vital services, such as communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information – all without data charges. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help with getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile networks,” Facebook writes in an online petition it wants Free Basics supporters to sign.

“However, Free Basics is in danger in India. 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 one billion people can’t afford to access any services,” it continues.

Now granted Facebook offers a compelling defence of its Free Basics service, that by pushing for a one-tier model that some people won’t be able to afford Internet services, and while Facebook’s service solves that problem, we have to ask, at what cost? As I’ve said before, the danger of Facebook’s vision for the Internet is that it almost completely self-serving, as Facebook and its third-party partners will create an online ecosystem wherein the social network has complete control over what people see, what information they access, and what tools they can use.

It is this control, reports indicate, that India’s telecom regulators have taken issue with, and they’re justified in doing so. Now granted India hasn’t said ‘no’ to Facebook outright, but has suspended the service will it goes on a fact-finding mission, opening a public consultation period regarding “differential pricing for data services”. The consultation is working to find solutions regarding issues like “non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market access,” as well as alternatives to the type of strategy Facebook is proposing. The consultation period ends at the end of the year.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this, given that the decisions in India regarding Facebook’s Free Basics could have far-reaching effects on the social network’s efforts to control the world.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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