Facebook has launched a new campaign on its site asking India users to save its ‘Free Basics’ platform by signing an email to TRAI. Free Basics was formerly known as the Internet.org but has faced criticism in India as many argue that it is in violation of Net Neutrality principles.
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.”
The letter is written in response to TRAI’s recent paper which questions whether zero-rating plans and apps could be in violation of regulatory and anti-discriminatory principles. It should be noted that the TRAI paper does not mention Net Neutrality as such.
Facebook’s letter to TRAI reads,
“To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India. Thank you.”
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. Stakeholders are expected to post their comments for the paper by December 30 and counter-comments are to be submitted by January 7.
The paper says that while zero-rating might help accelerate the rate of Internet access in the country, there are several negative effects that might ensue and that these plans may go against the principle of non-discriminatory tariff.
The regulator says that such tariffs put small content providers at a disadvantage and “creates entry barriers and non-level playing field for these players stifling innovation.” These are arguments that Net Neutrality activists have also put against zero-rating platforms by TSPs.
The paper also gives suggestions as to how such practices can be curbed and says that if free Internet access is ‘delinked’ from specific content, then it would be better.
Facebook’s Free Basics platform, which is available for Reliance subscribers across the country, is a zero-rating platform, which could run into trouble if TRAI recommends that zero-rating plans as anti-competitive.
Facebook’s Kevin Martin, Vice President, Mobile and Global Access Policy, had said in an earlier statement, regarding TRAI’s latest paper, “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.” His statement defended Free Basics and says that the data shows that the app is helping more people come online “by serving as a bridge to the full, paid internet.”