INDIA’S government has essentially banned a Facebook program that sought to connect with low income residents by offering free access to a limited version of the social network and other internet services.
The ruling is a major setback for the social network’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has lobbied hard for the program as part of a campaign to expand internet access in developing countries.
Zuckerberg was forced to defend his company’s motives for rolling out the free service, amid claims the proposal was anti-competitive and would create a “walled garden” controlled by Facebook.
In an opinion piece published by the Indian newspaper the Times of India last month, Zuckerberg argued that extending internet access could help relieve the poverty of one billion people in India who are not online.
“Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim — falsely — that this will give people less choice,” he wrote.
“Instead of recognising that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim — falsely — the exact opposite.”
Facebook has already introduced Free Basics in partnership with wireless carriers in dozens of emerging nations.
The service provides free access to a stripped-down version of Facebook and certain other internet sites — including some that provide essential information like weather forecasts, health education and job listings.
But the program has sparked debate in India, where critics contend that Free Basics effectively steers users toward Facebook and its partners, while making it harder for other internet services — including homegrown start-ups — to build their own audiences.
In a much-awaited decision, Indian regulators said telecommunications providers may not charge different or ‘discriminatory’ rates for delivering different kinds of internet content.
The ruling essentially bans programs like Free Basics that are based on what’s known as ‘zero rating’ in industry jargon, because they don’t charge for downloading certain kinds of data.
In a policy memo, Indian regulators warned that such programs raise the risk that users’ “knowledge and outlook … would be shaped only by the information made available by those select offerings.”
The regulators said their decision was guided by the principles of net neutrality, or the concept that all websites and apps should be treated equally by internet access providers.
Net neutrality advocates contend that charging different rates based on content is unfair both to consumers and to internet services that are competing for consumers’ attention.
US regulators endorsed net neutrality in rules enacted last year, but those rules don’t specifically ban carriers from exempting some services from data limits.
The Federal Communications Commission is now studying the zero-rating issue.
Facebook said in a statement that it’s disappointed with the ruling but will continue its efforts to increase internet access.
“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,” the company said.
Zuckerberg had campaigned hard for the program, making personal visits to India.
“In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s wellbeing that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely,” Zuckerberg wrote in his Times of India piece, citing libraries, basic healthcare and education as examples.
“And in the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights.
“That’s why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services.”
Facebook also responded to critics of Free Basics last year by creating a new platform for outside developers to contribute apps for the program.
Facebook has about 130 million users in India. But like other US-based internet companies, it sees a huge opportunity to expand by reaching the estimated 1 billion Indians who don’t have internet access.