What Facebook’s Spat with TRAI Tells Us About the Ethics of Digital Lobbying

Are you one of the million people that sent out a missed call in hopes of supporting Facebook’s Free Basics initiative and “digital equality”? If so, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has some unfortunate news for you: your support doesn’t count.

It isn’t your fault, however. As a series of emails between TRAI and Facebook shows, the fault lies squarely with the social networking company.

By looking to primarily sway public opinion instead of asking its supporters to engage with TRAI on the issue of differential pricing, Facebook has at best muddled the telecom regulator’s consultation process and at worst failed to contribute positively to the public debate surrounding net neutrality.

A little background first, though. Partially in response to the Save the Internet’s massive movement over the past year, Facebook embarked on a multi-million dollar public lobbying effort that centred around TRAI’s consultation process. The Silicon Valley-based company took a page out of the classical Indian politician’s playbook and started sending out its message about Free Basics through SMS-es, newspaper advertisements, roadside hoardings, online videos, radio shows and even WhatsApp promotions.

Its coup d’état, however, was in figuring out a way to harness its user base and advertisement campaign into sending favourable responses to TRAI’s consultation paper on net neutrality. The company did so through two different ways: the first was to use its own social networking service to ask people to send out a pre-filled message to TRAI (which came with its own share of uneasiness and boo-boos). The second way was by embarking on a massive missed call campaign by which users and supporters of Free Basics could purportedly voice their support.

TRAI to Facebook: Spam needs to be meaningful.

TRAI to Facebook: Spam needs to be meaningful.

Three Grievances

This is where TRAI has cracked down on Facebook. The telecom regulator, which publically disclosed the points of contention it has with Facebook two days ago, has admonished the company over three major points:

Point 1The first, and most significant, point is that a large portion of the Facebook-mediated responses simply can’t be officially recognized by the telecom regulator. As TRAI secretary Sudhir Gupta notes in a letter to all stakeholders and commenters, “in both the above sets of responses [given by Facebook], the respondents have not given their comments on the specific questions raised by the Consultation Paper but have only submitted their response in a fixed template”.

The reasoning behind this is understandable. As a largely technical organization, TRAI simply can’t be swayed by numerous or even emotional pleas; the regulator needs issue-specific input.

TRAI’s frustration, however, extends beyond this – as I’ll illustrate in Point 3 – because the regulator has no way of contacting the would-be supporters of Free Basics and differential pricing of Internet services; Facebook as a platform has that information. At the end of TRAI’s first letter to Facebook, the regulator attaches a message that it wanted to be sent to people who either gave a missed call or sent their support through Facebook.

“Thank you for your email…A perusal of your response indicates that your comments are not addressing the questions that were posed in the Consultation paper. Hence you are requested to give your response to the specific questions with justification so as to facilitate the Authority to frame Regulatory Guidelines on the subject,” the first part of the message reads.

Point 2 – TRAI and Facebook disagree over the the number of responses that were sent in support of Free Basics through the company’s social networking service. While Facebook’s public policy director for India Ankhi Das claims in a letter that over 10 million people sent an email in support of “digital equality and Free Basics”, TRAI’s joint advisor K.V Sebastian flatly refutes this number in a later response.

“Your response also claims that more than 11 million people have sent email to TRAI supporting ‘digital equality and Free Basics’. However, as per our records, the number of responses received from both platforms [missed call and e-mail] as on January 6th, 2016 is only 18.9 lakhs or 1.89 million,” Sebastian writes.

Setting aside the number of ‘paid versus organic’ reach jokes that are easily made, what should we take away from this? One obvious answer is that Facebook could be lying outright. Another reasonable suggestion is that there could also be technical issues; either at Facebook or TRAI’s end.

What do we do with these numbers anyway? Facebook claims 11 million e-mails were sent in support of Free Basics. The Save the Internet movement claimed in 2015 that it had coordinated the sending of over 1 million e-mails to TRAI for an earlier consultation paper. The side with the greater numbers obviously can’t win, but the numbers also simply can’t be wished away.

It’s here that we see real problems when public policy and digital technologies interact with one another. On one hand, the Internet supposedly expands the scope of formulating public policy as it does with everything it touches. On the other, how should online support be authenticated?

How is the public supposed to provide input on an overly technical concept such as net neutrality? Should we expect members of the public to be able to answer the questions put out by TRAI? And finally, to what extent should TRAI be swayed by public opinion or make its judgment based on public mood?

Point 3 – The last point of contention is perhaps the most damning for Facebook. The telecom regulator charges the social networking company with wilful negligence, pointing out that Facebook could have reached out to its users and asked them to respond to the questions but chose not do so.

“It is conveyed through your [Facebook’s] letter that you are unable to reach out to the users who responded via missed calls as you do not have their e-mail addresses. As those responses had come through Facebook’s platform, it is expected that you would find ways to communicate TRAI’s message to such users as well,” Sebastian writes.

TRAI’s primary grievance here is that Facebook could have tried to communicate the regulator’s message through SMS-es or sent them the URL to the consultation paper on net neutrality. The regulator comes down harshly on Facebook, with Sebastian pointing out that “TRAI would like to convey its disappointment on [this] issue as we do not have the benefit of the comments of such larger number of users.”

What probably irks TRAI the most is that it wants more input; it wants to hear from people that could speak out but, it could give Facebook only a week to find the million people that registered support through missed calls.

While this overall point has been very clear to the general public from the moment Facebook started its massive advertisement campaign, what is worth noting here is that this is the first response that we’ve seen from an official Indian authority to Facebook’s aggressive public lobbying efforts.

If an Indian or Chinese tech company placed print and online advertisements throughout the United States and started a grassroots level lobbying effort, it would be downright scandalous. There would be widespread outrage from Republican politicians and the FCC would likely look askance at the company’s efforts. And yet, in India nobody thinks twice – we’ve become accustomed to needing developmental help. While it would be great from someone in the current government to speak out, it is likely that Prime Minister Modi’s warm relationship with Silicon Valley would be hit if he came out harshly against Free Basics.

“If we were to run a missed call campaign in support or against some public policy issue, you can be pretty sure that I would get a call from somebody within the local government or Telecom Ministry. It would be a clear misuse of our power and it’s bizarre that Facebook is doing this without any sort of backlash from anybody,” said a senior executive of an telecom company, who spoke to The Wire on the condition of anonymity.

Giving TRAI credit

The year 2015 has been a whirlwind for the Indian technology industry in general and net neutrality in specific and at the centre of it all has been TRAI and its chairman, R.S Sharma. When Sharma, a bureaucrat, first assumed his position, there was backlash from a number of people who saw the appointment as a blow to the autonomy and independence of TRAI as a regulator.

The previous chairman, Rahul Khullar, was not seen kindly by net neutrality supporters after he rather obtusely remarked that “shrill voices” would not win the debate, referring of course to the Save the Internet movement.

TRAI under Sharma, with regard to net neutrality, has been a trying process, marked by delays. In an article for the Indian Express, Apar Gupta notes correctly how the delays caused by the confusing and convoluted DoT-TRAI regulatory process “only furthers the interests of incumbents with sizeable market power”. As the government, the DoT and TRAI twiddle their thumbs, net neutrality violations continue to happen and may cause irreversible damage to the Indian start-up ecosystem.

And yet, TRAI’s decision to extend the deadline for comments in an effort to reach out to Facebook is a welcome sign and definitely a step in the right direction. The regulator’s decision to publish its email back-and-forth with Facebook, however, is unprecedented. It offers supporters of net neutrality, the technology industry and the general public a peek into how the authorities view digital public lobbying efforts and is a remarkable show of transparency.

The TRAI-Facebook tussle is only a sign of things to come. While this specific incident may go down as a case study in public policy curricula around the world, Silicon Valley-based technology companies are unlikely to back off  from pushing their commercial interests in developing countries. Regulators will have to draw a line in the sand. 

  • City Map

    Excellent article. FB has led an improper campaign that is borderline lies. Proper ass-whipping and kudos to TRAI.