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Facebook suffers setback in India

February 8, 2016

Indian regulators have blocked Facebook's Free Basics Internet service in the country, siding with critics who say it hurts net neutrality. The ruling is seen as a big blow to CEO Zuckerberg's prestigious project.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks in New Delhi, India.
Image: Reuters/A. Abidi

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on Monday dealt a blow to Facebook's plans to offer free, pared-down mobile Internet to millions of mainly poor Indians.

Facebook had launched its so-called Free Basics service in around three dozen developing and emerging countries, including India, which offers curtailed web services on mobile phones along with access to Facebook's own social network and messaging apps.

However, the service has come under fierce criticism from net neutrality advocates, who argue that it does not treat all websites equally and that the entire Internet should be available to everyone on equal terms.

On Monday, TRAI chairman Ram Sewak Sharma sided with such Internet activists, announcing the regulator's decision to "essentially [mandate] that no service provider shall charge differential pricing on the basis of application, platforms or websites or sources."

New York-based lawyer Mishi Choudhary, who had led an online campaign against the social media giant, welcomed the ruling: "We are delighted by the regulator's recognition of the irreversible damage that stands to be done to the open Internet by allowing differential pricing," she said.

Subject to review

India has a population of over 1.2 billion people, but less than a quarter of them have Internet access, making it a diamond in the rough for Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. During a visit to New Delhi in October, CEO Zuckerberg spoke of his desire to help "the next billion" of Indians get online.

As such, the new rules are seen as a severe setback for the 31-year-old billionaire, who on several occasions has vigorously defended Free Basics, which is also known as project "Internet.org."

"The Internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress," Zuckerberg wrote in a 2015 Facebook post. "It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society, and it connects people with vital resources for health and education."

In an obvious jab at those who fought to block his ambitious plan, Zuckerberg doubled down: "Eliminating programs that bring more people online won't increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive us all of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected."

Reacting to Monday's ruling, a spokesperson said Facebook was "disappointed with the outcome," but added the company would "continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings."

While net neutrality activists may have won this round, the fight is not over yet.

TRAI officials said its policy on the matter would be reviewed "every two years or sooner."

hg/pad (Reuters, Reuters)