Indian regulator blocks Facebook’s Free Basics

Indian telecoms regulator TRAI has banned Facebook’s Free Basics scheme, which has been widely criticised for violating the concept of net neutrality.

Free Basics is Facebook’s strategy to widen internet use in developing countries by teaming with telcos in local markets to give free access to specific sites, ie Facebook and the sites of its local partners. However, critics say it runs foul of the principles of net neutrality by not giving free access to all sites.

Facebook founded Internet.org in 2013 to roll out the scheme, which is now in 38 countries including Indonesia, another large mobile market where a high proportion of the population can’t necessarily afford a regular subscription to data services.

In India, Facebook launched the scheme last year in partnership with Reliance Telecom. However, the launch prompted intense campaigning on both sides of the net neutrality debate, with Facebook taking out front page ads in Indian newspapers.

The TRAI ruling, which is good for two years, didn’t mention Facebook or Free Basics by name, but it was the emergence of this scheme that prompted TRAI’s investigation. Companies violating the ruling will be fined $740 (Rs50,000) a day up to a maximum of $73,500 (Rs5m).

The ruling also effectively means that no internet provider can offer pricing for data services that discriminates on the basis of content. It’s understood that Indian ecommerce platform Flipkart has also tried to team with telcos to provide free or cheap data for use with their apps.

“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,” said Facebook in a statement in response to the TRAI ruling. “While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings.”

While a victory for net neutrality supporters, the ruling does impact India’s poorer consumers who can’t afford high data charges. Internet penetration is still relatively low in India – although the country has 300 million internet users, around 800 million of the country’s population is still not online.