Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is disappointed with the Indian telecom regulator, which decided to bar all forms of differential pricing on Monday, putting an end to the social networking company’s Free Basics initiative in the country. “Today India’s telecom regulator decided to restrict programs that provide free access to data. This restricts one of Internet.org’s initiatives, Free Basics, as well as programs by other organizations that provide free access to data,” said Zuckerberg in a post on his Facebook page late Monday night.
Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which is part of its larger internet.org initiative to provide access to websites and applications that have subscribed to become a part of the platform, in partnership with a telecom company.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on Monday barred all forms of differential pricing of data services, barring in emergency situations. This also means that programmes such as Free Basics would not be allowed in India.
“While we’re disappointed with today’s decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet,” said Zuckerberg in his post.
Much of the debate around net neutrality and differential pricing in India was centred around Facebook’s Free Basics programme.
It ran a very aggresive and expensive advertising campaign in the country in response to Trai’s consultation paper on differential pricing of data services in India.
Facebook came under fire from Internet activists in India and other parts of the world for aggressively campaigning for Free Basics and running it as a “misguided campaign” to promote digital equality.
Over the last two months, in a series of letters made public by both parties, Facebook also got involved in a war of words with the telecom regulator over responses sent through Facebook to the regulator.
“Connecting India is an important goal we won’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them,” added Zuckerberg in his Facebook post.
Monday’s verdict by Trai was hailed by internet activists, startups and companies alike. Some even likened it to the squashing of the controversial Section 66A in India.
“Free Basics works – millions of people around the world use it to get connected, including women and men who are accessing healthcare and finding jobs online. It can make such a difference. We are all disappointed that people in India won’t be able to take advantage of Free Basics – but glad that our other work with Internet.org continues. We will keep connecting the world,” Facebook Chief Operation Offcer Sheryl Sandberg said in a comment to Zuckerberg’s post.