India has finally killed Facebook’s Free Basics. Two days ago, The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), announced that it is pitching its tent with campaigners of net neutrality. This decision is coming two months after TRAI suspended the Free Basics services in India pending an investigation into how the service affects net neutrality and online activities in India.
Recall that two months ago, activists and concerned individuals in India started a campaign against Facebook free Internet initiative known as Free Basics. Their grouse was that by implementing the service in collaboration with major Internet Service Providers in India, Facebook is inadvertently shutting out websites not signed up into Free Basics.
Free Basics evolved from Facebook’s wider program to deliver cheaper universal Internet access to the world’s poor. It all started in 2013 under an initiative known as Internet.org. The general idea was straightforward; simplify phone apps to make them less tedious to run in phones and offer them to the poorest communities of the world.
Here is a brief explanation into how Free Basics works. The target are the poor who have little or no access to the Internet due mainly to economic constraints. The user downloads and installs the Free Basics app into their phone. Once activated, they are now able to browse the net for free through the app. The caveat here is that, one is limited to only the websites found in the app.
It is this limitation that campaigners were against. To them, restricting poor people to only a few sites is liked putting them in a walled garden with little chance of exploring the outer world. Facebook argument was that, giving people who cannot afford the Internet a limited version of free internet access is better than not having anything at all. And according to Facebook, research shows that people on Free Basics tend to sign up for a paid unlimited Internet after some time because they now have a taste of the real thing.
So in spite of spending huge sums of money in campaigns and adverts in support of Free Basics over the last two months, TRAI finally refused to buy Facebook’s argument. Delivering the verdict on net neutrality and inadvertently killing Free Basics in India, TRAI , at a news conference through its Chairman, Ram Sevak Sharma, said:
“Essentially everything on the Internet is agnostic in the sense that it cannot be priced differently,”
But Mark Zuckerberg is not giving up yet on a program that is operating in 38 countries around the world. In a post on his Facebook page, he said:
“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.
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.”
India would be the second country to put a stop to free basics. Last month, authorities in Egypt refused to renew Free Basics’ operating licence in the country. Effectively killing it in Egypt.