Facebook’s Free Basics service, offered as part of the Internet.org initiative, which includes several dozen services that are “zero-rated” (that is, they don’t count towards data caps), has been blocked in India by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
The service has been opposed in large part by a grassroots movement called SaveTheInternet.in, which supported net neutrality and rejected the idea of zero-rated services, but also by “research organizations, advocacy groups, professors and academic institutions, captains of industry, and politicians cutting across party lines.”
Net neutrality is about treating every service as equal on the Web to allow all sorts of services to thrive without having gatekeepers that would decide which service needs to be given “free access” and which should be throttled.
Even if some popular services were zero-rated, in the end it would be bad for competition (and ultimately for those same users who may have benefited from those zero-rated services). With Facebook as a gatekeeper, it would be hard to predict whether it would act as a fair gatekeeper for other services, or whether it would block websites it may not like.
Mahesh Murthy, a well known Indian venture capitalist, described the program as "imperialism and the East India Company all over again," carried out under the guise of "digital equality.""What Facebook wants is our less fortunate brothers and sisters should be able to poke each other and play Candy Crush, but not be able to look up a fact on Google, or learn something on Khan Academy or sell their produce on a commodity market or even search for a job," he said.
TRAI banned “differential pricing,” which includes services such as Facebook’s Free Basics, but allowed Internet providers to offer free data to their customers through which they can access the whole Internet, and not just a group of hand-picked web sites like in Free Basics’ case. This is probably a better and more fair solution to get more people on the Internet in India.
According to SaveTheInternet.in, two issues remain in this net neutrality consultation. One is a proposal to require VoIP licenses from the government for services such as Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, and so on. The group opposes it because it would give Internet providers the ability to throttle or block services that aren’t licensed. It could also be a way to require such services to allow the government to monitor their communications more directly, if they want the license.
Another issue is that some telecom companies have threatened to sue the government if services such as Free Basics are blocked, but the SaveTheInternet.in group believes that net neutrality is covered under free speech protections provided under Article 19 of the Indian constitution.
Going forward, the group wants more people to participate in the consultation over the broadband pricing transparency in India, to ensure that the telecom’s pricing is fair.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.