The Indian government has spent much of the last year trying to craft net neutrality rules, and had recently been fielding public comment on whether or not Facebook’s zero rating effort, Free Basics, violates net neutrality. As we’ve covered at length, Facebook’s been trying to corner the developing nation ad market with a zero rated program that offers free access to curated, Facebook approved content. Critics and Free Basic content partners alike haven’t been comfortable with giving Facebook that much control.
Neither has the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which, in an initial set of net neutrality guidelines, argued that what Facebook has been up to is effectively collusion. And Facebook’s recent attempt to stuff the comment box apparently didn’t work very well. Now TRAI has taken things one step further and demanded that Facebook’s partner, mobile phone operator Reliance Communications, shut down Free Basics immediately:
“We have asked them (Reliance Communications) to stop it and they have given us a compliance report that it has been stopped,” a senior government official told TOI… “The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen,” the source said, in reference to the Facebook-Reliance ‘Free Basics’ platform.
Critics have long argued that not only does Free Basics give Facebook too much power, it potentially harms free speech, undermines the open nature of the Internet, and provides a new, centralized repository of user data for hackers, governments and intelligence agencies. Others, like Mozilla, have suggested that if Facebook really wants to help the world’s poor, it can start by funding access to the actual Internet. Facebook, annoyed by those who don’t believe it’s being purely altruistic, has responded by calling such critics “extremists” who are hurting the poor.
Granted it’s important to note that TRAI has yet to finalize any rules yet, meaning that Facebook’s lobbying team (run by former FCC boss and no friend to net neutrality Kevin Martin) still has plenty of time to convince Indian regulators that it’s an altruistic angel with only the the welfare of the poor in mind. It’s also entirely possible that while the final rules ban Facebook’s power grab, telecom lobbyists still manage to water them down to the point of uselessness. In fact there already have been reports that Airtel has had lots of input into the proceedings, and as a result TRAI likely won’t ban zero rating.
Avoiding the issue of usage caps and zero rating is the path taken by the FCC after pressure from AT&T, Verizon and friends — and the result has been a bit of an ambiguous mess here in the States thus far, with broadband operators doing their best tap dance routines to wiggle over, under and around ambiguous consumer protections. So while keeping Facebook from becoming an entrenched gatekeeper in any market is a good idea, it won’t mean…