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Facebook’s battle for ‘Free Basics’ seems to have intensified after Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recently asked Reliance Communications (RCom) to keep Facebook’s internet platform on hold till it sorts the differential pricing issue. In a letter dated December 1, Trai had asked RCom to keep the commercial roll out of Free Basics in abeyance.
The social media giant has started an aggressive campaign in India to gather public support for Free Basics. Facebook in an advertisement said, “Free Basics by Facebook is a first step to connecting one billion Indians to jobs, education, and opportunities online, and ultimately a better future. But Free Basics is at risk of being banned, slowing progress towards digital equality in India.”
The Free Basics service, which has been in the midst of net neutrality debate, is said to offer free access to a set of basic websites and services with the objective of introducing internet to the people. The Internet.org project was recently renamed as Free Basics after it received a lot of critism earlier this year on going against the concept of net neutrality.
Free Basics draws criticism
Despite it being rechristened as Free Basics the Facebook platform has continued to attract criticism. Leading the battle for net neutrality and against Free Basics is ‘Savetheinternet.in’ which has been led by a volunteer group. Earlier in the year it had mobilised over one million responses in support of net neutrality and against the use of Internet.org.
The new effort by Facebook to push Free Basics has come under severe criticism on the advertising campaign blitzkrieg which was seen across newspapers, online, television, cinemas and even outdoor hoardings.
Also read: After TRAI holds up, Facebook goes aggressive to promote Free Basics
It even went on to the extent of asking Facebook users to send a pre-drafted message to Trai which pledged their support for Free Basics.
“But Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services… Unless you take action now, India could lose access to free basic Internet services, delaying progress towards digital equality for all Indians. Tell the TRAI that you support Free Basics and digital equality in India,” the Facebook message added.
Also read: Facebook ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign pushes users to send messages to TRAI
Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama and one who has been at the forefront of the net neutrality debate, in an Economic Times article said that the question people have to ask is if they (Facebook) are spending this much money, what do they have to gain from it? Pahwa has further estimated the ad spends of Facebook for the Free Basics campaign to be close to $20 million (Rs 132.48 crore).
One of the main criticisms about the platform is that it has the right to select or reject the entry of any participants on the platform. The second point of dispute is that it does not allow Voip, hi-resolution photos, videos or any services which interfere with the services of telecom operators. Another point of contention is though Free Basics does not currently have any advertising, Facebook has not said whether or not this will be the same in the future.
Even All India Bakchod (AIB) took to YouTube to drive their arguement against Free Basics with their third video on net neutrality called ‘AIB: Save the Internet 3’, released on December 3. In the explainatory video they pushed for why Free Basics is just a renamed version of Internet.org and questioned many of the clauses of the platform.
Many also took to Twitter to voice their criticism against Free Basics.
Facebook goes on the offensive
Defending its project in a post on Internet.org, the firm said, “we need to be practical and make sure programs are deployed in a fair and transparent way.”
It even went to the extent of questioning the genuinity of other free internet platforms and cited web links of news reports of Aircel’s plan to provide free Internet to all its subscribers and Mozilla Foundation’s suggestions of equal rating. “Two of the services mentioned have not even rolled out yet so it’s too early to call them successful,” the company said.
Also read: Facebook Basics ban an interim measure?
Aircel, however, has partially rolled out its free Internet services in some parts of the country. Facebook also questioned Gigato mobile app, which credits Internet data consumed for accessing website on its platform and gets paid from websites that have partnered with it.
“The third (Gigato) requires applications to pay to be featured, which should be a huge concern for net neutrality activists and is potentially damaging to startups who can’t afford to be part of the program,” Facebook said.
The social media major said that giving away free megabytes only helps existing Internet users as opposed to the unconnected and also means users on low-bandwidth phones could burn through their data very quickly.
Facebook also criticised Mozilla Executive Chairperson Mitchell Baker’s idea of ‘equal rating’ a system wherein some amount of data necessary for modern life is offered at discounted or no charges while companies paying for it get a ‘brought to you by’ attribution.
In its post Facebook also claimed that because of its connectivity efforts, more than 15 million people who were previously unconnected are now using the Internet. “Free Basics is open to any developer and we publish clear, simple, objective tech specifications,” Facebook said.
It all began after Trai had issued a new consultation paper on differential pricing for data services which invited comments on December 9. The deadline it set for recommendations and comments by December 30.