Zuckerberg's Plan Spurned as India Backs Full Net Neutrality

  • Telecom regulator bans differential Internet data plans
  • Facebook had lobbied India to approve its Free Basics plan

Facebook Inc.’s plans for expansion in India have suffered a major setback.

After the company spent months lobbying the country to accept its Free Basics service -- a way of delivering a limited Internet that included Facebook, plus some other tools, for no cost -- India’s telecom regulator ruled against any plans from cellular operators that charge different rates to different parts of the Web.

Telecom operators can’t offer discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content, and aren’t allowed to enter into agreements with Internet companies to subsidize access to some websites, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said in a statement Monday. Companies violating the rules will be fined, it said.

“This is the most extensive and stringent regulation on differential pricing anywhere in the world,” Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, said via phone. “Those who suggested regulation in place of complete ban have clearly lost.”

With this decision, India joins countries such as the U.S., Brazil and the Netherlands in passing laws that restrict telecom operators from discriminating Internet traffic based on content. It is a big blow to Facebook’s Internet sampler plan known as Free Basics, which is currently offered in about three dozen countries including Kenya and Zambia, none of which come close to the scale or reach that could’ve been achieved in India.

With 130 million Facebook users, 375 million people online, and an additional 800 million-plus who aren’t, India is the biggest growth market for the social network, which remains blocked in China.

Facebook said in a statement that it’s “disappointed with the outcome.”

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said the decision won’t cause Facebook to give up on connecting people to the Internet in India, “because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the Internet.” The company will continue to focus on its other initiatives, like extending networks using satellites, drones and lasers.

Freebies Curtailed

The rule will put an end to prepaid plans that offered free access to services such as Google searches, the WhatsApp messaging application and Facebook. These packages were popular with low-income users by giving them an incentive to get online, said Rajan Mathews, director general of the lobby group Cellular Operators Association of India.

“These types of plans were being used by operators to meet the policy goals of connecting one billion people,” Matthews said. “With these gone, the government needs to tell us what alternatives are there.”

The regulator’s decision comes after months of public lobbying by Facebook for India to approve Free Basics, which allows customers to access the social network and other services such as education, health care, and employment listings from their phones without a data plan. 

Free Basics was criticized by activists who said it threatened net neutrality, the principle that all Internet websites should be equally accessible, and could change pricing in India for access to different websites.

The regulator, which had sought stakeholders’ views, said it was seeking to ensure data tariffs remain content agnostic. Operators will have six months to wind down existing differential pricing services. 

Google Unaffected

“Anything on the Internet can’t be priced based on content, applications, source and destination,” R.S. Sharma, the regulator’s chairman, told reporters in New Delhi. Some Internet companies’ plans to offer free WiFi at public venues, like Google Inc.’s project with Indian Railways, are not affected by this ruling, he said.

For Free Basics, one or two carriers in a given country offer the package for free at slow speeds, betting that it will help attract new customers who’ll later upgrade to pricier data plans. In India, Facebook had tied up with Reliance Communications Ltd., though the service was suspended in December as the government solicited comments from proponents and opponents.

Since the government’s telecommunications regulator announced the suspension, Facebook bought daily full-page ads in major newspapers and plastered billboards with pictures of happy farmers and schoolchildren it says would benefit from Free Basics. Zuckerberg has frequently made the case himself via phone or newspaper op-eds, asking that Indians petition the government to approve his service.

Entrepreneurs, business people and activists took to Twitter to share their views after the decision came out on Monday.

“Great to see TRAI backing #NetNeutrality,” Kunal Bahl, founder of Snapdeal.com, one of India’s biggest e-commerce sites, said. “Let’s keep the Internet free and independent.”

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