India, Facebook's Free Internet uproar and Net Neutrality debate

Few weeks ago, Facebook rebranded it's controversial free service as 'Free basics' and launched it in India, in collaboration with India's telecom giant Reliance. The service provides free access to internet, but for selected services –– the websites which sign ups with Facebook. Their adverts throughout television channels explains why Facebook believes basic access to internet for everyone is human right, and they aims to bring more than one billion unconnected Indians online through their free service.

The California based technology giant has launched similar services in other developing and under-developed countries and they are claiming to have bought 15 million people online till now, in partnership with 35 operators worldwide.

That sounds great, right? So, why controversy?

Well, Net Neutrality activists in India feels otherwise, because the service splits internet into free and paid tiers, thus violating the principles of net neutrality, which states all types of date on the internet are equal and no one data should be prioritise or discriminated over the other.
Protest for Net Neutrality in India, April 2015.
By using zero-rating platform –– a term used to define a data which a telecom service provider subsidizes for a consumer –– Free Basics misleads people into thinking that the limited services which they offers is the entire Internet, which isn't true, say critics, which includes some of the India's popular start-ups like PayTM and Zomato.

In this regard,  Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper questioning the Facebook zero-rating platform and asking Reliance for the service temporary shut down till 30th December, to hear the responses of all stakeholders, before it concludes whether the said service violates net neutrality or not. You can access the full paper here.

TRAI's paper has received about six lakh responses by now, with most of them around Free basic service. The activists on Twitter which includes some popular Bollywood celebrities urges people to reply to TRAI's paper by going on and put their own version of text that they want users to send to the regulator, opposing the Facebook's Free Basic.  

Facebook responds with advertising campaign and an outburst by Mark

Facebook in response launched an aggressive advertising campaign in India, to counter all the critics against their service. "We are committed to working with TRAI to uphold the principles of affordable and innovative internet access for India in a fair and consistent manner. During the consultation process, we hope the focus is on the issues that matter most," says Kevin Martin, VP for Mobile and Global Access Policy of Facebook.
Suprised Mark Zuckerburg in his op-ed on Times of India questions, "Who could be possibly against this?" and further adds, "Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims–even if that means leaving behind a billion people." Read full op-ed here.

What is Net Neutrality?

For those who don't know, Net Neutrality or open internet, is the principle that Internet Service Provider (ISPs) should give the consumers an access to all legal content and applications on an equal basis, without favoring some sources or blocking the others. It also prohibits ISPs from charging providers for speedier delivery of their content on "fast lanes" and deliberately slowing the content from content providers that may compete with ISPs. 

In March 2015, Federal Court in United States ruled a 317-page order (read full order here) in favor of Net Neutrality. However, In India, Minister of Communications in parliament told in August this year that there is no specific rules for protection of Net Neutrality, but it has formed a committee to study the issue.

India's telecom regulators decision will have a far reaching implications for open internet in not only in the world's largest democracy but dozens of other developing countries that will come online in next few years. And Facebook too will leave no stone unturned to push it's service, noting the fact that India is fastest growing and largest market outside US with 500 million people expected to come online by 2017.

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About Riz Stories

An Electronics Engineer by education, a part-time blogger by passion. He loves everything about technology, hence he writes about it. Interest includes Technology, Startups and Mobile Applications.
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