By Subhashish Panigrahi*

India would not see any more Free Basics advertisements in billboards with images of farmers and common people explaining how much they could benefit from this Facebook project. Because the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has taken a historical step by banning the differential pricing without discriminating services. In their notes, TRAI has explained,

In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience.

Not just that, violation of this ban would cost Rs. 50,000 every day.

net neutrality

Facebook’s earlier plan to launch Free Basics in India by making a few websites—that are mostly partners with Facebook—available for free. The company not just advertised aggressively in billboards and commercials across the nation, it also embedded a campaign inside Facebook asking users to vote in support of Free Basics. TRAI criticized Facebook’s attempt for such a manipulative public provocation. Facebook was also heavily challenged by many policy and internet advocates including non-profits like the Free Software Movement of India and the campaign. The latter two collectives were strongly discouraging Free Basics by bringing public opinion where only was used to send over 2.4 million emails to TRAI to disallow Free Basics. Furthermore, 500 Indian startups including major ones like Cleartrip, Zomato, Practo, Paytm and Cleartax also wrote to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting continued support for Net Neutrality—a concept that advocates for equally treating websites—on the Indian Republic Day, January 26. Stand-up comedians like Abish Mathew and groups like All India Bakchod and East India Comedy had created humorous but informative videos explaining the regulatory debate and supporting net neutrality which went viral.

Technology critic and Quartz writer Alice Truong reacted to Free Basics saying:

Zuckerberg almost portrays net neutrality as a first-world problem that doesn’t apply to India because having some service is better than no service.

The decision of the Indian government has been welcomed largely in the country and outside. In support of the move Web We Want programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation Renata Avila has shared saying,

As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world. It follows a precedent set by Chile, the United States, and others which have adopted similar net neutrality safeguards. The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier Internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots. We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web.”

There are mixed responses on social media, both supporting and opposing. Josh Levy, Advocacy Director at Accessnow, has appreciated saying, “India is now the global leader on #NetNeutrality. New rules are stronger than those in EU and US.”

Had it been allowed for differential pricing, it would have affected startups and content-based smaller companies adversely as they could never manage to pay high price to a partner service provider to make their service available for free. On the other hand, tech-giants like Facebook could have easily managed to capture the entire market. Since the inception of the Facebook-run non-profit has run into a lot of controversies because of the hidden motif behind the claimed support for social cause.


About the author:

Subhashish Panigrahi is an educator and free knowledge evangelist, and works at the Centre for Internet and Society’s Access to Knowledge programme, Bengaluru. He tweets at @subhapa and could be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of