TRAI flays Facebook’s handling of the responses sent regarding Free Basics; a quick recap

The tussle between the Telephone Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Facebook reached a feverish pitch following a detailed letter the former recently sent to the latter. This letter was regarding Facebook’s handling of its users’ response to the TRAI consultation paper on differential pricing pertaining to Facebook’s Free Basics platform.

The letter, from TRAI’s Joint Adviser K.V. Sebastian, delivers a scathing commentary on the the manner in which these end-user responses were delivered. The two significant areas of contention centered around both the quality and the quantity of these responses. Here’s a quick recap of the implications of the letter.

Sebastian states that they requested Facebook to communicate the actual text–comprising four key questions–of the consultation paper to their users. It so happens Facebook didn’t–they simply created a canned response that alluded to the Free Basic platform and how it change the lives of people who were yet to experience the Internet.

Sebastian then states that the text of the canned response that Facebook used to send responses on behalf of its users contained its own ‘tangential’ version of how Free basics could potentially help those who cannot afford to pay for data, with no mention of any of the four questions raised in the TRAI consultation paper.

Without having access to the actual content of the consultation paper, TRAI states that vital information required, for making an informed decision before responding, was missing.


He then went on to expressing concern about the fact that Facebook has taken on the role of a self-appointed spokesperson to speak on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using their platform.

TRAI responded to Facebook’s allegation that from 17 December no email could be delivered to the TRAI email ID for receiving responses to the consultation paper, leading to logging a lower number of responses than were actually sent (16 million, according to Facebook.) TRAI states that Facebook should have brought this error to their notice much earlier on so it could be rectified.

As a result of the issues above, TRAI states that instead of this being an open and transparent public consultation exercise, the Facebook campaign that directed its users’ responses “has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.”

Sebastian then pointed out the ramifications of such a poll, if it were allowed to pass, would have dangerous ramifications of policy-making in India.

In the face of the tenuous subject of digital freedom and net neutrality, it certainly appears that TRAI has been transparent in raising the issues at hand, although the following manner in which the feedback on this consultation paper has been garnered has been fraught with issues.

On the one hand, millions of Facebook users have chosen so pledge support for Free Basics–many of whom aren’t even aware of the pertinent questions raised by the TRAI in their consultation paper. This brings the very quality of these responses into question. On the other hand, the quantity of these responses is disputed, although the TRAI continues to be open to inviting further responses.

It is left to be seen how this plays out. But through it all, it is vital that we as end-users choose to stay informed and in the loop on the implications of these policies, every step of the way. And especially before pledging support to any campaign that raises concerns on our freedom to use the Web.