In case you missed it during the Lunar New Year festivities, earlier this week Facebook’s Free Basics service was banned in India, along with similar zero-rating services, after telecoms regulator Trai ruled that such services were in violation of net neutrality principles.
The ruling isn’t a surprise. Facebook has been under fire from net neutrality advocates in India since Free Basics was launched there a year ago – first as Internet-org, which allowed access only to select apps, then as Free Basics in which all apps could be used, but select apps would be zero-rated.
Mark Zuckerberg has vigorously defended the project, expressing astonishment that anyone would consider Free Basics (which he views as a humanitarian project under the auspices of Internet.org’s mission to connect the unconnected) not only a violation of net neutrality, but also a worse deal than the status quo.
Facebook board member Marc Andreessen was so baffled by the Trai ruling – and by comments from Indian users on Twitter that Facebook’s efforts were the equivalent of colonialism – that he responded: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
The disagreement seems to come down to a fundamental difference of understanding of what counts as net neutrality.
Zuckerberg’s view on net neutrality is framed around the idea that it’s “not an equal Internet if the majority of people can’t participate”, and that violations of net neutrality includes things like blocking services or creating fast lanes – Free Basics, he says, does neither.
Zero-rating critics in India (most of whom work in India’s tech industry) say Free Basics violates net neutrality by deciding which apps and services users can access for free, which gives those apps a greater advantage over apps that users must pay for, which is anti-competitive and discourages innovation. Critics also say it’s disingenuous for Facebook to claim Free Basics is motivated by altruism when it’s undoubtedly harvesting valuable user data to feed its overall business model for later use.
Trai, which has been soliciting public views since December, ultimately sided with the critics.
The decision doesn’t spell the end of Free Basics or Internet.org’s quest to connect the unconnected – not yet, anyway. Free Basics is still available in 37 other countries. The question is how many more telcos will partner with Facebook for Free Basics, or if other regulators will re-examine zero-rating as a net-neutrality issue as a result of this ruling. (In the US, where the net neutrality debate has already become heavily politicized, Verizon is under fire for its zero-rating Go90 video streaming service, in which Go90 videos don’t count against your data cap, nut Netflix and YouTube do.)
Anyway, it’s interesting that the whole episode illustrates that there’s a lot more to connecting the unconnected than connectivity.