TRAI supports Net Neutrality, effectively bans Free Basics: All that happened in this debate

With Facebook and TRAI engaged in a war of words over Free Basics, we take a look at the latest developments in Net Neutrality debate in India.

By: Tech Desk | Updated: February 9, 2016 9:02 am
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In a latest decision TRAI has ruled against differential data pricing tied to content services from telecos and others effectively ending zero-rating platforms in India. Zero-rating platforms provide access to some websites for free. Facebook’s Free Basics is an example and the company had tied up with Reliance Communications to launch the program in India. Now the TRAI ruling means that the end of Free Basics in India.

TRAI’s decision comes nearly after two months after the regulator first floated a paper questioning whether such services should be allowed in the first place. The paper set-off a second Net Neutrality debate in the country with Facebook aggressively defending Free Basics. We take a look at how the events unfolded.

Read TRAI’s full order on Net Neutrality below:

TRAI floats paper questioning zero-rating platforms

On December 12, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) floated a new paper questioning differential data pricing for content services, although the paper does not specifically mention the term Net Neutrality.

TRAI’s consultation paper titled, “Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services,” raises concerns over zero-rating platforms being offering by TSPs in particular.

The paper asks for comments on whether such differential pricing should be allowed. It asks whether these platforms could end up acting as gate-keepers of the Internet, stifling innovation and access to smaller websites, who are unable to join these platforms.

Watch our videos on Net Neutrality 

Stakeholders are expected to post their comments for the paper by December 30 and counter-comments are to be submitted by January 7.

According to Net Neutrality activists, zero-rating platforms are in violation of the guiding principle of how the Internet should function. TRAI’s paper asks in the end, “Are there alternative methods/technologies/business models, other than differentiated tariff plans, available to achieve the objective of providing free internet access to the consumers.” Read the full report on TRAI’s paper here.

Facebook’s response

Facebook responds to TRAI’s paper saying that Free Basics is open to all and that it is about ensuring digital equality.

Facebook’s Kevin Martin, Vice President for Mobile and Global Access Policy, said in a statement, “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.”

Watch our video of Facebook explaining Free Basics

Facebook says Free Basics is helping more people come online “by serving as a bridge to the full, paid internet” and that “the app is non-discriminatory, non-exclusive and open to all developers.” Read Facebook’s full response here.

Facebook launches campaign to generate support for Free Basics

Facebook introduces a new campaign on its site asking India users to save its ‘Free Basics’ platform by signing an email to TRAI. Some users on the social media site say that they didn’t know they were supporting Free Basics, which was previously called the app, when they signed the email. Free Basics is now a part of the larger operations, which includes other services to improve connectivity across the world.  Reports also show that Facebook is trying to get users in US to send emails to TRAI. The company blames this on an error.

Also read: Net Neutrality debate: TRAI aims to resolve some issues by early 2016

In its campaign letter, Facebook says that “Free Basics is a first step to connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online – and achieving digital equality in India. But without your support, it could be banned in a matter of weeks.” Read more here.

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TRAI gets over 6 lakh responses to its paper, mostly around Free Basics

TRAI’s paper has so far gotten nearly six lakh comments, with most of them being around Facebook’s Free Basics service. Activists on Twitter also urge people to reply to TRAI’s paper and put out their own version of text that they want users to send to the regulator.

Must read: TRAI floats new Consulation paper, lists disadvantages of zero-rating plans

The response from the can be read here.

The response provides alternatives to zero-rating platform and says, “There are several ways other than zero-rating and differential pricing to bring internet access to millions of Indians who hitherto cannot access internet due to high data costs…Here it is important to note that some telecom service providers and Facebook have misled people to believe that there is no other way but to resort to differential pricing and zero rating to expand internet access…”

The response talks about the National Optic Fibre Network and deployment of USO Fund as ensuring a wider Internet access for people “without breaching net neutrality rules.”

Reliance confirms Free Basics on hold

Reliance Communications is asked to put launch of the Facebook Free Basics service on hold following TRAI’s directive to this effect. “As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance Communications spokesperson said.

Video: AIB on why Facebook’s Free Basics is against Net Neutrality

TTRAI had asked Reliance Communications, the only telecom partner for the app, to stop providing the service and issue a compliance report on the same. In a response to the report, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.” Read more here.

Zuckerberg defends free basics

In op-ed for Times of India, Zuckerberg writes, “We believe that connectivity is a human right and that getting connectivity for the world is one of the fundamental challenges of our generation. When people are connected, we can accomplish some pretty amazing things. We can get closer to the people that we care about, we can get access to new jobs and opportunities and ideas. We can receive education and healthcare and communication and access to new services.”

He said connectivity can’t just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful and needs to be something that everyone shares and an opportunity for everyone.

He wrote in the blog targeting critics of Free Basics, “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. Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim – falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden.” Read more here.

TRAI extends deadline, will ask Free Basics supporters for specific responses 

TRAI has extended the deadline for submission of comments till January 7 amid an intensified campaign for and against Free Basics. The regulator said a large percentage of the record number of 18.27 lakh responses have been only about supporting the specific Facebook product without answering the larger issue of ‘differential pricing’ concerning Net Neutrality.

Watch our video series on Net Neutrality 

It appears that Facebook’s aggressive campaign might have backfired as the regulator felt that the answers sent within the template set by the social media site did not answer its questions.

According to a PTI report, TRAI Chairman R S Sharma said that a record 18.27 lakh responses have been received so far, of which a large percentage are about supporting a specific product called Free Basics. Indicating that the whole consultation process could have been hijacked, Sharma said: “It is like we have asked Question X and they have given answer to the Question Y.”

“Now the problem for this is that we had asked for response to the specific question of differential pricing… instead we have got responses on supporting Free Basics. Now how supporting Free Basics help in answering the questions… it has become difficult for us to arrive at,” Sharma said.

Nasscom comes out in support of Net Neutrality

Industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) in a statement said that the issue of differential pricing needs to be considered carefully to study the possible impact on the principles of Net Neutrality.

Nasscom reiterated its position that any tariff plan should not restrict right for the consumer to choose. It also added that data services should allow innovation without permission and should have no differential data charges for different apps.

“Differential pricing should not become a tool that facilitates market dominance or enables anti-competitive behavior by either TSP or platform provider. It should not offer direct or indirect commercial benefit including leveraging the value of customer data generated in the process,” read Nasscom’s statement.

Facebook’s official response to TRAI paper: Differential data pricing should be allowed

Facebook is the only Internet firm to side with telecom operators over the issue of differential pricing of data services. In its response to TRAI’s paper, Facebook said, “The short answer is yes. Differential pricing, as the term is used in the consultation paper, should generally continue to be allowed.”

Facebook has said zero rating is permitted in the vast majority of jurisdictions around the world and these plans should be evaluated case by case, based on a number of criteria. “Those jurisdictions that have engaged in extensive deliberation over zero rating, including the EU and the US, have concluded that adoption of net neutrality rules does not require banning zero rating,” it added.

TRAI Facebook spar over exact number of responses

Facebook and TRAI are now fighting over the exact number of responses to its consultation paper on differential pricing for data services.

Releasing number of responses received through ‘ and’, TRAI said only 1.89 million had responded. Facebook on January 6 has claimed that more than 11 million people had supported its plan to make parts of the Internet available for free under ‘Free Basics’.

TRAI says it is disappointed that Facebook did not reach out to users who had left missed calls and ir has not received even a single revised response from any user for Free Basics till January 7.

“It appears that you have not been able to convey the message to your users (whose mail ids were with you) in time,” TRAI said in the letter.

TRAI slams Facebook in new letter, says Free Basics campaign grossly misplaced 

TRAI has written a strongly worded letter to Facebook, slamming the social media giant for the way it ran the campaign to save its zero-rating platform ‘Free Basics’.

TRAI’s letter, which can be accessed here says, that Facebook has been silent on whether it had conveyed the full text of the regulator’s message to users who had supported Free Basics. TRAI has specifically requested Facebook to ensure that Free Basics supporters answer the four questions raised in the paper, rather than espouse support for just one platform.

It has also accused Facebook of reducing a “meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed and transparent decisions into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.”

TRAI goes on to adds that neither the spirit nor the letter of the paper warrants such an interpretation as done by Facebook. The regulator says that if such interpretations are accepted, then it would “have dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India.” Read more about the letter here.

Facebook claims its emails to TRAI were blocked

Facebook has defended itself against TRAI and said that it had reached out to users who supported Free Basics for revised response.

In a statement issued by a spokesperson, Facebook said, “TRAI requested that we reach out to these Free Basics supporters to ask them to also answer the specific questions raised by the consultative paper. We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions. Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their request. While we did not include all of the specific language drafted by TRAI, we did deliver a request for additional information and included in the draft email the exact language from the four specific questions posed in the consultation paper. More than 1.4 million Indians responded by submitting revised comments that addressed these questions.

TRAI promises stand on differential data pricing by Jan end

TRAI is firming up its view on Net Neutrality and differential pricing of data services and will come out with its stand by the end of this month.

An open-house discussion on differential pricing of data services, saw huge participation from telecom operators, consumer rights groups, industry bodies and individuals.

While telecom companies and Facebook stuck to their guns pitching for allowing differential pricing, Net neutrality activists opposed any such move.

“It was a very lively consultation. The hall was full, a lot of people participated and gave their views, comments, thoughts and I think we will take all these into account. And we hope that by the end of this month, we will come out with our position,” TRAI Chairman R S Sharma told reporters after the discussion. Stakeholders can send in their additional comments by Monday evening, Sharma said.

TRAI rules against differential data-services 

TRAI has ruled in favour of Net Neutrality and banned all differential data services. . TRAI has ruled that no service provider shall offer or allow discriminatory pricing for data services based on content and effectively banned any arrangement or agreement between any service provider or any person that adheres to differential pricing for data services.

However TRAI has allowed for special reduction of tariff for accessing or providing emergency services during times of public emergency. The authority has asked for the same to be reported within seven working days. The telecom regulator has ruled that if a service provider is found violating the regulation, there will be a penalty of Rs 50,000 for each day of contravention, subject to a maximum of Rs 50 Lakhs.
Also read: DoT’s Net Neutrality report: Here are all your questions answered

You can follow our full Net Neutrality coverage here.