By:- Subhashish Panigrahi
India would not see any more Free Basics advertisements on billboards with images of farmers and common people explaining how much they benefited from this Facebook project. Because the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has taken a historical step by banning differential pricing without discriminating services. In their notes TRAI has explained, “In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience.” Not just that, violation of this ban would cost Rs. 50,000 every day.
Facebook planned to launch Free Basics in India by making a few websites - mostly partners with Facebook—available for free. The company not just advertised aggressively on bill boards and commercials across the nation, it also embedded a campaign inside Facebook asking users to vote in support of Free Basics. TRAI criticized Facebook’s attempt to manipulate public opinion. Facebook was also heavily challenged by many policy and internet advocates including non-profits like Free Software Movement of India and Savetheinternet.in campaign. The two collectives strongly discouraged Free Basics by moulding public opinion against it with Savetheinternet.in alone used to send over 2.4 million emails to TRAI to disallow Free Basics. Furthermore, 500 Indian start-ups, including major names like Cleartrip, Zomato, Practo, Paytm and Cleartax, also wrote to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting continued support for Net Neutrality - a concept that advocates equal treatment of websites - on Republic Day. Stand-up comedians like Abish Mathew and groups like All India Bakchod and East India Comedy created humorous but informative videos explaining the regulatory debate and supporting net neutrality. Both went viral.
Technology critic and Quartz writer Alice Truong reacted to Free Basics saying; “Zuckerberg almost portrays net neutrality as a first-world problem that doesn’t apply to India because having some service is better than no service.”
The decision of the Indian government has been largely welcomed in the country and outside. In support of the move, Web We Want programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation Renata Avila has said; “As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world. It follows a precedent set by Chile, the United States, and others which have adopted similar net neutrality safeguards. The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier Internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots. We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web.”
There are mixed responses on the social media, both in support and in opposition to the TRAI decision. Josh Levy, Advocacy Director at Accessnow, has appreciated saying, “India is now the global leader on #NetNeutrality. New rules are stronger than those in EU and US.”
Had differential pricing been allowed, it would have affected start-ups and content-based smaller companies adversely as they could never have managed to pay the high price to a partner service provider to make their service available for free. On the other hand, tech-giants like Facebook could have easily managed to capture the entire market. Since the inception, the Facebook-run non-profit Internet.org has run into a lot of controversies because of the hidden motive behind the claimed support for social cause.
About the author:
Subhashish Panigrahi is an educator and free knowledge evangelist, and works at the Centre for Internet and Society’s Access to Knowledge programme, Bengaluru. He tweets at @subhapa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org