After months of hard battle, the war is bound to an end where Facebook losses and suffers a painful death. Specifically, death for its Free Basics initiative as India has now officially banned it. Despite the campaigns, dialogues, comments, and calls to support digital equality and free internet, The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI wasn’t convinced enough. This Monday, the regulators ruled that service providers must charge the same price.
Free Basics started out as Facebook’s initiative in India last February, having partnered with various wireless carriers and organizations, reports Wired. The initiative offers limited internet access to customers who cannot afford a broadband connection or a smartphone data plan. Two months later, in April, several publishers withdrew from the initiative. The reason they say is because it has violated net neutrality principles where internet providers are seen favoring some services over others.
The publishers argued that with the net neutrality rule, all online services should be treated equally. By giving some apps out of the connection, the social media is putting some services at a competitive disadvantage. Facebook’s CEO responded with a post where he states that the social media giant has no intention of blocking or throttling the internet.
By May, the social networking site has opened its developer platform so anyone could launch a service within the free app. By mid-May, digital rights group from 31 countries signed an open letter to Zuckerberg saying that internet.org has violated the principles of net neutrality, threatens freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.
Internet.org has since been rebranded into Free Basics to make it sound less like the app intended to displace the entire internet. By then, Facebook has stepped up its efforts to defend its platform and has organised events and campaigns to show how the platform has been a success and has helped a lot. The platform, according to CNN Money, includes providing information on health, travel, jobs and local government. Through this service, costs are minimized.
Critics who are quick to argue have been pointing out that the initiative of the social networking site has in fact violated the central tenets of net neutrality where internet content and users should be treated equally. They also pointed out that the program seems to be closely mirroring the social media’s commercial aims.
By December, TRAI has issued a temporary ban on the service. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, had personally defended the program, arguing that Free Basics is open to all software developers, had no advertisements and helps less fortunate users escape poverty. Zuckerberg even has a blog posted on The Times of India where he stated that the program was created in order to help people.
He said that instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet service for free, the critics of the program has instead continued to spread false claims. Even if those false claims leave behind a billion of people without access. Zuckerberg also asked who could be possibly against such a nice initiative that benefits a lot. He also pointed out that if people lose access to Free Basics services, they will simply lose access to opportunities being offered by the Internet today.
The TRAI has acknowledged the need to open Internet access to more Indian users. It even carved out an exception for service providers to offer limited free data that enables users to access the internet. However, it said that the Free Basics program doesn’t fit that description because it only offers a limited number of websites and apps. In the end, TRAI ruled that differential pricing could lead to an uneven playing field, stifle innovation and makes it difficult for other publishers to enter the market.
So in the end, Facebook did not manage to sway the TRAI. So far, the social media giant has not yet commented on what it will do now that the ruling is out. Free Basics is currently offered in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia Pacific and over a dozen African countries.