TRAI’s ruling on differential data pricing and the effective ban on Facebook’s Free Basics app has seen a flurry of reaction and coverage in India and abroad.
TRAI’s order is one of the strongest positions the regulator has taken in favour of Net Neutrality and we take a look at how the international media has analysed this order.
Washington Post’s headline says India bans Facebook’s ‘free’ Internet for the poor and notes that Free Basics “immediately ran afoul of Internet activists who said it violated the principle of ‘net neutrality,’ which holds that consumers should be able to access the entire Internet unfettered by price or speed.”
The article, while it doesn’t explicitly take a pro or anti-Facebook stand, points out that India still has connectivity issues with only 300 million people being online.
The article reads, “India has 300 million mobile Internet users but still has close to 1 billion people without proper Internet access. But it is second only to the United States in number of Facebook users, with 130 million, with vast expansion potential as Facebook works to increase its user base beyond the developed world.”
The Wall Street Journal, in contrast has a very strong editorial on TRAI’s decision. WSJ’s editorial, which has a slightly misleading title, ‘India’s Internet shutdown’. It goes on to note, “Net neutrality—the misguided idea that all Internet access should be the same—trumped the goal of offering hundreds of millions of poor Indians the most essential online services,” and argues that Facebook’s motives for Free Basics might not have been “altruistic, but the suspicion that Free Basics would harm Indians is baseless”.
It takes a strong pro-Free Basics stance and says that “the service is an open platform that includes content from any developers that meet certain guidelines,” and would help “the tech industry and consumers”.
WSJ’s opinion ends very sharply arguing that “India’s elite would rather let the majority of the population lose out than open a new market to a foreign competitor,” thus mirroring an argument seen on Twitter that those who have opposed Free Basics are elitists and anti-poor.
The Guardian has a piece by Ellen P Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School, who has also sharply criticised the policy and called it an over-reaction. Goodman’s Guardian article defends zero-rating platforms saying that they are “unlike network discrimination because it affects only price, leaving the ultimate consumption choice with consumers”.
She notes says, “Nothing is blocked, nothing degraded. So whether zero rating is discriminatory really depends on whether “free” substantially skews choice and constrains net freedom.”
Goodman also says that data shows that “price differentials do not substantially change consumption patterns or advantage incumbent applications,” and gives a link to a paper in support of her argument.
In Goodman’s view consumers do know the “difference between the whole internet and the limited choices made available for free,” and eventually move on to the full Internet. Her article also notes that while zero-rating might not be the best way to increase connectivity, it does not cause great harm.
New York Times in its piece notes that Facebook appears to have “miscalculated in introducing the program in India,” even though it says Free Basics had ‘noble’ intentions.
The NYT article notes, “While Facebook expected to be welcomed with open arms, its message to the country focused on itself rather than the broad coalition of telecommunications firms supporting the effort, experts said. That, in turn, fostered a climate of distrust about Facebook’s future intentions in the country and led to the questions from regulators.”
It also notes that the whole debates puts Facebook in an awkward place because the site has been a proponent of Net Neutrality in the US, but in India it appears to have take a different stand.
Tech website Recode notes that one shouldn’t “expect Facebook to simply lie down.” It points out that, “Free Basics has been an important pet project for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visited India this year and also hosted the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public conversation at Facebook’s headquarters.”
The article also notes how Zuckerberg has consistently stuck with the same argument for Facebook: “Internet access for poor, even though they can’t afford data”.
BBC has also covered the TRAI ruling and the impact of investor Marc Andreessen’s ‘colonialism’ tweet comment which has fire-balled into a huge controversy in India. BBC’s post points out that the Andreessen’s tweet is damaging because “it hits right to heart of what is a perennial problem for Facebook: trust.”
The article notes that for Facebook to grow it has to gain in emerging markets, and that it can only do if it builds on trust, something that the Andreessen tweet undermines.
It goes on to say, “Marc Andreessen’s comment, as a member of Facebook’s board, is so damaging – it’s put Zuckerberg once again on the back foot… Because colonialism, albeit digital, is precisely what some in India were afraid of. The suggestion by Andreessen that India, with its history, should somehow be pro-colonialism was treated by many as absurd.“