Facebook, India Regulators at Odds Over Free Basics Internet

Free Basics, previously known as Internet.org, offers limited Internet access to users who cannot afford a broadband connection or smartphone data plan.

It appears that something has been lost in translation between Facebook and those who purport to protect Internet neutrality for the masses in the vast country of India.

The social network, which trades in giving away free functionality and services to users in return for being able to store their information, aggregate it and sell it to advertisers, has been giving free Internet access to millions of people in the Far East country who cannot afford it. But the plan is in danger of blowing up in its face because a key regulator in the country thinks Facebook is gaining an unfair advantage to commerce over the Indian populace.

Facebook's Free Basics, previously known as Internet.org, offers limited Internet access to users who cannot afford a broadband connection or smartphone data plan, and there a many millions of people who fit into that category in India. It is similar to a freemium arrangement with a cloud storage company, in which users receive a free amount of capacity to start in hopes that they will want to buy more space later.

Offers Free Websites on Limited Basis

The Free Basics service provides useful Websites on health, travel, jobs and local government free of charge. By offering a limited number of Websites and services, and transmitting as little data as possible, costs are minimized for Facebook.

Naturally, Facebook is one of the apps included in the service. Others are Ask.com, Baby Center, Bing, Dictionary.com,Wikipedia and AccuWeather, among others.

Facebook has asked its users to express support for its Free Basics service by contacting the regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Nearly 2 million people have sent messages of support, but the regulator is not convinced the service is appropriate. TRA says that Facebook isn't answering questions raised by the agency about net neutrality and has asked Reliance Communications, a large India-based telecom firm, to stop providing Free Basics pending its ruling.

Facebook said it has revised the language to address more specifics, so as to make sure nothing is misconstrued. "We are aiming to give people in India a voice in this debate and an opportunity to support Free Basics," a Facebook spokesman told CNN on Jan. 11.

Net Neutrality Is Apparently at Stake

Critics say that Free Basics violates some of the core elements of net neutrality, which mandate that all Internet content and users should be treated equally.

Mahesh Murthy, a Indian venture capitalist, told CNN that "what Facebook wants is our less fortunate brothers and sisters to be able to poke each other and play Candy Crush, but not be able to look up a fact on Google, or learn something on Khan Academy or sell their produce on a commodity market or even search for a job."

Other critics of Free Basics have been lobbying the TRA, posting about 500,000 comments about "saving the Internet" generated in various forums. TRAI is expected to announce its official position on differential Internet pricing in a few weeks.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended the service against critics, arguing that the platform is open to all software developers, has no advertisements and will help less fortunate users escape poverty.

"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," Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed column in the Times of India. "Who could possibly be against this?"

Critics in Other Markets, Too

Internet.org, now Free Basics, instituted in 2013, was supposed to be a great way for people around the globe who live in remote areas where the Internet is not readily available to get on the Web. But last May, a collective of 65 advocacy organizations from 31 countries released an open letter arguing that it was not serving its purpose and actually violates the core tenets of a free and open Internet. That's when the first wave of protest began.

eWEEK published a slide show last year explaining in more detail about how Internet.org came about, how it has evolved and why it continues to face criticism.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...