The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released their long-anticipated ruling on net neutrality in India. The regulators have ruled against differential and discriminatory pricing of mobile data on the basis of content.
This ruling will affect Free Basics — Facebook’s controversial plan to offer free, but limited Internet access — in India. Mark Zuckerberg has been campaigning to bring increased digital connectivity to the developing world. Free Basics, which claims to have 15 million users in more than 35 countries around the globe, is part of Facebook’s quasi-philanthropic efforts. India is the second largest market for Facebook users after the United States and considered vital to its continued growth.
Today’s much-anticipated ruling by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was not about Free Basics per se. Rather, regulators were reviewing pricing schemes like “zero-rating,” where mobile operators offer access to some websites and services for free, while charging for others. Advocates for digital equality arguethat zero-rating gives an unfair advantage to subsidized content, distorts the market for smaller players, and squashes innovation. Supporters of Free Basics, on the other hand, counter that urban elites who already have Internet access should not deny access to the poor, even if more equitable methods exist.
It seems the last thing India's government wants is Americans coming in and giving people just enough "free" internet to access Facebook all day and have to pay for everything else.
Free Basics was ostensibly targeted at Indians who had never experienced the Internet or could not pay for data plans. However, Facebook recently struggled to provide a reporter with the name of a single Free Basics user in India who had never been online before. Free Basics allows users free access to limited resources including Wikipedia, Bing search, and the weather, as well as a lightweight version of Facebook. Yet normal data charges apply for outside websites, like Google search results, for example.
Facebook’s promotion of Free Basics has been orchestrated like a political campaign. In December, Zuckerberg published an op-ed in the Times of Indiadefending Free Basics. In it, he repeated Facebook’s claim that half of the people who go online through Free Basics end up paying for access to “the full Internet” within 30 days, but offered no further details about the study. “Who could possibly be against this?” Zuckerberg asked. “Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India.” Other countries have prohibited Free Basics. It is not offered in Chile, for example, because the government banned zero-rating in 2014.
If you want to know why I think Zuckerberg and his philanthropy are full of absolutely self-serving crap, this Free Basics scam is exactly why. This is precisely the kind of metered access that net neutraility laws in the US are supposed to prevent, and why Republicans are very eager to shut them down.
Imagine that Facebook gave you "free" mobile internet data -- only for accessing Facebook and search engines -- but the second you clicked on a web site, you had to pay as you go with the kind of data rates that would make AT&T and Verizon actually blush.
Given no net neutrality rules in India until now, that's the game Facebook decided it was going to play. That should be a big alarm bell to everyone about the necessity of net neutrality here in the US and indeed everywhere, but you can guarantee those rules go away the moment we get a GOP president again.
America already has the most expensive internet in the developed world. The answer is not "free internet" with strings attached,