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India Rejects Facebook Plan to Exploit World's Poorest with Private Internet

'As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world.'

Net neutrality advocates in India demonstrate against "VIP culture" on the web. (Photo: AFP)

Net neutrality advocates in India demonstrate against "VIP culture" on the web. (Photo: AFP)

In a move that open internet advocates say will "resonate around the world," India's top telecom regulator on Monday struck a decisive blow against Facebook's "discriminatory" and controlling internet scheme known as Free Basics.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled against two-tiered pricing for different data platforms or content, effectively banning Free Basics, which only allows users free access to a small number of curated websites, including Facebook.

"The message is clear," declared Renata Avila, Web We Want programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, which was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web. "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."

"As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world," Avila added.

The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 will "disallow service providers to offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content being accessed by a consumer," Sudhir Gupta, TRAI secretary, said in a statement

"While formulating the regulations, the authority has largely been guided by the principles of net neutrality seeking to ensure that consumers get unhindered and non-discriminatory access to the internet," Gupta said.


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Free Basics—which has launched in 18 mostly developing countries— has faced mounting criticisms from net neutrality advocates, who said the program essentially allowed Facebook to serve as the internet "gatekeeper" for hundreds and thousands of the world's poorest people.

Open internet advocates celebrated the ruling Monday, which came after the TRAI issued a temporary ban on the service in late December in order to investigate whether it is in violation of net neutrality protections.

Mishi Choudhary, executive director of India's Software Freedom Law Center, said the group is "delighted by the regulator’s recognition of the irreversible damage that stands to be done to the open Internet by allowing differential pricing."

"Today’s decision is a major victory for free speech and for Internet users everywhere, no matter what Mark Zuckerberg’s well-paid public relations team might tell you," said Evan Greer, campaign director for the U.S.-based Fight for the Future. According to the digital rights group, telecom companies such as T-Mobile and Verizon have been pushing similar practices in the U.S., claiming that they do not violate net neutrality.

"The basic principles of net neutrality are what have made the Web into what it is today," Greer continued. "Zero rating schemes and discriminatory pricing are just another tool to favor some applications over others. They allow ISPs to pick winners and losers, and create the same harms as fast lanes and slow lanes. They give Internet Service Providers too much power to shape Internet users’ online experience, and open the floodgates for potential censorship and abuse."

Companies that violate the order will be fined 50,000 rupees per day (around $740/day) up to a maximum of 5 million rupees, according to the ruling, which will be reviewed in two years. As TechCrunch notes, "Those numbers are negligible for Facebook, which has invested millions in this program, but it’s a crucial public opinion victory against the company that is at stake here."

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