Facebook’s Free Basics, a zero rated service providing free access to a host of websites, is now available as a non zero-rated service on mobile web. This means that users of mobile phones outside of Reliance Communications (RCOM) can also access the service through mobile data. Facebook had tied up with RCOM to provide Free Basics in India and would work only with RCOM SIM subscribers. We’ve written to Facebook and will update the article once we hear from them.
Zero Rating of individual sites and platforms is a violation of Net Neutrality, since it allows telecom operators to make some sites or platforms cheaper to access than others.
Free Basics not paused: Note that last month, the TRAI had reportedly asked RCOM to stop providing the Free Basics service temporarily and asked it to give TRAI a compliance report stating that the service had been stopped. RCOM had allegedly received this notice from TRAI two weeks ago.
As of now the service is accessible through mobile data on Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Tata Docomo connections (top image), where users can browse the partner websites through Internet.org. However, on Android, the service cannot be accessed through the app via either mobile data or through WiFi.
Essentially, Free Basics being available to all telecom subscribers, RCOM or not, kind of makes it like a directory service like Yahoo, from where one could, once upon a time, navigate through the world wide web.
Facebook has been lobbying to get support for its Free Basics service in India since its launch. It launched multiple print, television, telephone and digital campaigns (see here and here), where it started placing ads in the middle of users’ timelines on mobile apps. When clicked, users were redirected to a Change.org petition which asked people to support Free Basics.
Ruffling TRAI’s feathers: Last month, the company’s latest campaign asked its Indian users to send an automated email to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) stating that they supported Free Basics. However, the TRAI told Facebook that its campaign was a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll” which did not answer the questions it had asked in its September consultation paper on Differential Pricing. The exchange of letters between TRAI and Facebook are a continuation from when TRAI said that it did not get responses in support of Free Basics in time.
Google’s exit: Readers would note that Google, which was previously listed on Free Basics, pulled out of the service yesterday. It had signed up for Internet.org in Zambia in July 2014, and according to a Facebook representative, had been live on the platform as of two weeks ago. The company did not state when it left the service but confirmed that it is no longer on the platform.
Google’s stance on Zero Rating has changed: In August last year, Google had lobbied to get opposition to Zero Rating removed from IAMAI’s net neutrality submission, like Facebook had done previously. It has done zero rated deals in India, notably with Airtel, running FreeZone services. The company was planning to roll out its own Zero Rated service in India, but put those plans on hold after Net Neutrality protests, especially those against Airtel Zero. The change in Google’s stance also evident in the fact that when it comes to its projects, like Loon and RailWire WiFi, Google has said that people would be free to access anything they wanted on the internet without special zero-rated services.
Disclosures: MediaNama has taken a strong position in favor of Net Neutrality and against price discrimination; Founder and editor of Medianama Nikhil Pahwa is a volunteer with the SaveTheInternet coalition.