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TRAI asks Reliance Communications to pause Free Basics: report

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The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has supposedly asked Reliance Communications (RCOM) to stop providing Free Basics, Facebook’s net neutrality violating platform, temporarily, and asked it to give TRAI a compliance report stating that the service has been stopped, reports ET. The publication added that RCOM had received this notice from TRAI two weeks ago.

When contacted, Facebook replied with an unrelated and boilerplate response saying:

“We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.”

MediaNama has also written to  RCOM  for further details and will update this once we hear from them.

As of now, the TRAI is yet to take a stand on net neutrality and zero rating in the country, and is debating whether telecom operators should be allowed to have differential pricing for different content. The ET report also states that RCOM is yet to pull the service off of its platform, giving its subscribers the Free Basics login screen. However, readers should note that Medianama was unable to verify this claim independently.

Facebook started rolling out Internet.org in India in February this year with the mission to become a gateway to the internet by providing certain free services. This plan was developed especially for developing countries where the internet penetration and awareness is low. The next month, Sunil Mittal, Bharti Airtel’s chief, called out the service as a boon only to Facebook, and not philanthropy given its limited scope of access.

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Facebook’s email campaign: Last week, Facebook started a campaign asking its Indian users to send an automated email to TRAI letting it know that they support Free Basics. Some Twitter users said that they were not aware that Facebook had already sent an email, and only got to know about it through a Facebook notification. The email campaign was fashioned along the lines of SaveTheInternet* submissions for supporting net neutrality.

It’s worth noting that Facebook had also run a campaign in May where it placed Internet.org ads in the middle of user timelines through the app. In August, Facebook said that more that 17 million people had expressed support for its Internet.org services via SMS and the Facebook page, but as this Quartz story indicates, the company did not provide an option to not support or vote down the services, essentially having forced its users to express that support.

Internet.org was renamed to Free Basics this September because Internet.org misled consumers into thinking that it was the internet, which is not the case. Reliance also marketed and advertised the service as FreeNet and we’re not sure if it is continuing to use the same term to get subscribers.

TRAI’s consultation papers: Earlier this month, the TRAI issued another consultation paper on net neutrality, asking whether telecom operators should be allowed to charge differently for different websites, focused purely on the price discrimination aspect. This was a follow up to a consultation paper it put out in May this year.

On a similar note, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT for 2015-16 is looking into topics like digital privacy, challenges faced by startups, Internet and e-fraud and net neutrality.

Zero Rating violates net neutrality: In July, the government appointed committee on net neutrality stated that Internet.org violated net neutrality. However, the Department of Telecom (DoT) committee stated that zero rated platforms would only be allowed if the platforms offered the same terms and conditions for entry to all content providers and websites. This basically meant that content providers would still be able to sign up for zero rating, but would need to be treated equally on the platform. More on that here.

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Also read: Zero Rating slows down innovation, distorts competition & fractures the Internet

MediaNama’s take: If the TRAI has indeed asked RCOM to pause the service, it is good news for advancing net neutrality in the country. While Facebook and RCOM have the means and money to advertise and promote Free Basics in India given the lack of regulatory standards, the common man does not share their resources to lobby for net neutrality. This will at least ensure that there is a fair field where one player does not have an undue advantage over the other.

Check our comprehensive net neutrality coverage here

Disclosures: Medianama founder and editor Nikhil Pahwa is a volunteer with the Savetheinternet coalition and MediaNama has taken a strong position in favor of Net Neutrality and against price discrimination.

Image Credit: Free Press

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Written By

I'm a MediaNama alumna from 2015-16 (remember TinyOwl?) now back to cover e-services like food and grocery delivery, app based transport and policies, platforms and media in India.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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