Politics

TRAI Has Reliance Hit the Brakes on Free Basics

California: Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in California on Sunday. PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla (PTI9_27_2015_000340B)

California: Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters in California on Sunday. PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla (PTI9_27_2015_000340B)

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has waded into the net neutrality debate even as the regulatory process continues, with the regulator having asked Reliance Communications to temporarily suspend Facebook’s controversial Free Basics service.

Free Basics, a suite of online applications that are provided for free to India’s rural Internet users, has been the centre of widespread criticism and debate over the last year. ‘Save the Internet’, an online movement that gained momentum earlier this year, has pointed out that Free Basics falls on the wrong side of net neutrality, user privacy and technology-fuelled development.

According to a report in today’s Times of India, TRAI sent Reliance Communications — Facebook’s only telecom partner in India — an order over two weeks ago asking the company to stop offering Free Basics. Reliance has reportedly told TRAI that Free Basics has been stopped — even though the service is still up and running for at least a few people.

When The Wire contacted Facebook as to whether Free Basics was currently suspended, a Facebook spokesperson issued a non-committal statement that doesn’t reference the zero-rated service’s current status.

“We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected,” the spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

The regulator’s decision to temporarily suspend Free Basics comes even as Facebook has launched a massive advertisement campaign in India and has stepped up its public lobbying efforts.

The TOI report quotes a government source that explains TRAI’s logic. “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,” the source tells TOI.

While this line of reasoning is sound, and indeed is the standard that is adopted during most global regulatory processes, it does beg the question: why were state governments such as Andhra Pradesh allowed to go ahead and cooperate with Internet.org (Free Basic’s earlier avatar) before examining net neutrality concerns? And will TRAI clamp down on other violations of net neutrality in India even as it takes a final decision the matter?

Categories: Politics