Internet.org cmn

Facebook has started a campaign asking its users in India to send an automated email to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) letting them know that they support Free Basics, its zero rating platform which violates net neutrality. Through automated emails, Facebook is trying get public support for its version of net neutrality in TRAI’s consultation paper.

Earlier this month, TRAI issued another consultation paper on net neutrality that focused on differential pricing of data services, asking whether telecom operators should be allowed to charge differently. The deadline for submissions is 30th December 2015, and for counter comments is the 7th of January 2016.

We wonder where they got the idea from. That said, TRAI should not negate the submissions of over a million users in its previous consultation paper.

Here’s what the email says:

“Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With one billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India. Thank you.”

However, many users have been complaining on social media that Facebook is getting their petition ‘signed’ without people actually doing it.

Note that in July, the department of telecommunications in its report on net neutrality said that it is opposed to Internet.org and added “that collaborations between telecom operators and content providers that enable such gate-keeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged”. To clarify again, Facebook renamed its Internet.org service as Free Basics earlier in September.

Free Basics in India

In India, Facebook has tied up with Reliance Communications to offer Free Basics and earlier in October the companies said that they have brought one million Indians to experience the Internet via Free Basics. However, it is unclear that the one million users of Internet.org are all first time users.

It’s worth remembering that Facebook had said in May that Internet.org had 800,000 users in India and that only 20% of those were first time new users.

Not the first time

It’s worth noting that Facebook had also run a campaign earlier in May where it started placing ads in the middle of people’s timelines on their mobile phone application. When clicked, it redirected users to a Change.org petition which asks people to support their initiative. The petition shows that it has 150,000 supporters.

In August, Facebook submitted the support of more that 17 million people who expressed support for its Internet.org services via SMS and the Facebook page, to the department of telecommunications.

Facebook ran what is, in our opinion, misleading campaigns asking people to support Internet.org. As indicated in this Quartz story, it didn’t give people an option to not support Internet.org, or give it a thumbs down. It was also misrepresented its Internet.org group of services as free Internet services.

COAI’s misinformation campaign

It’s also worth remembering that telecom lobby COAI had launched a campaign for Net Neutrality called “Sab Ka Internet”. COAI has said that support for the campaign came from voice calls and SMSes made to a toll free number and has garnered 40 lakh responses. The COAI campaign was looking to  promote affordable Internet, push Digital India initiatives and ensure that Internet communication apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and WeChat were brought under that same regulations as telecom companies. The telecom body said that if operators were not offered a level playing field with net-based services, then their businesses would be viable only by raising data prices by up to six times.

Note, Facebook joined COAI as an associate member in August last year.

Despite repeatedly saying that it is committed to Net Neutrality, COAI in its submission to the TRAI consultation paper on regulating internet services and net neutrality, COAI favours differential pricing for data access which violates neutrality principles. From its responses to the TRAI:

Service Differentiation is a common business practice that is widely practiced across various industries. Take the examples of: a) Tatkal rail tickets, first class, sleeper class, unreserved – differentiated products different prices b) First class business class and economy class in airlines c) National expressway or highway vs a regular road d) Travel by bus, taxi or an auto e) Priority banking, personal banking f) Regular water, mineral water. We believe that even in the matter of OTT, TSPs should be allowed differential pricing for data access and OTT communication services as long as the TSP shall not discriminate between subscribers of the same class and such classification shall not be arbitrary.

TSPs should be given the freedom to negotiate commercial arrangements with OTT players. The operators should be allowed to engage with the OTT players to get into the bilateral arrangements providing adequate measures for consumer protection.

Disclosure: MediaNama has taken a strong position in favor of Net Neutrality and against price discrimination.