The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has ordered the mobile carrier to temporary suspend the Facebook’s Free Basics Internet program.
Facebook’s Free Basics is an app that allows users to access certain Internet websites, including Facebook, for free.
However, India’s independent regulatory body has asked Reliance Communications – the only mobile carrier that provides Free Basics in India – to disable the free internet service temporarily while the regulator investigates whether the service violates net neutrality.
Facebook’s Free Basics – Free Internet for ALL
Facebook introduced Free Basics (then known as Internet.org) app to India in February this year, offering people access to more than three dozen Web services for free.
Users of Facebook’s Free Basics app must have a Reliance mobile network and are limited to a range of portals including Wikipedia, BBC News, AccuWeather, Bing, and sites dedicated to infant health, and of course, Facebook and Facebook Messenger.
But since its launch, Facebook’s Free Basics has been controversial.Though it offers critical resources to people who might not otherwise be able to afford internet access, the program also offers a huge competitive advantage to the sites and services it includes. For instance, if Facebook Messenger is free to use, any other messaging app is going to be a hard sell. It’s a clear net neutrality issue, although Facebook has argued to the contrary. Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Free Basics was “not in conflict” with net neutrality because it doesn’t block or throttle other websites. Nonetheless, net neutrality advocates would argue that by providing some sites for free, people are significantly discouraged from visiting anywhere else. Zuckerberg essentially says that’s something we should overlook here. “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all,” he wrote. He also added, “It’s too expensive to make the whole internet free.”
India has asked Reliance Communications — the only cell carrier in the country that currently offers Facebook’s “Free Basics” service — to cease offering it for the time being. “As directed by [the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India], the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance spokesperson says in a statement provided to The Verge. The regulatory authority tells Livemint that it’s waiting for Reliance to provide “detailed terms and conditions for Free Basics,” which it will use to determine possible net neutrality violations. Facebook sent a statement to The Verge suggesting that it’s trying to restore service. “We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected,” a Facebook spokesperson says.
Facebook launched Free Basics last year through its Internet.org brand. The service allows subscribers on supported phone carriers to visit select websites without paying for data. In India, those sites include Facebook, Facebook Messenger, BBC News, Wikipedia, Bing, AccuWeather, and sites dedicated to infant health and malaria prevention — there are 30 listed in total. The sites are, in part, customized to the location each carrier is servicing, so Reliance’s version of Free Basics also includes Indian news sources. Facebook has also partnered with other carriers to offer Free Basics in over a dozen African countries, as well as some countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia Pacific.