Facebook's Free Basics cut off in India

The government has halted the program over concerns that Facebook violates Net neutrality by offering only certain Web content for free.


Facebook's Free Basics program is on the outs in India.


India has blocked Facebook's Free Basics service.

The action is the result of a new regulation released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), BBC News reported Monday.

Free Basics, launched in 2014 under Internet.org, is a Facebook-backed initiative that aims to provide a limited number of Internet sites and services for free to areas of the world where online access is unavailable or virtually nonexistent. But TRAI has denounced the initiative and in December asked Facebook to stop the program until the social network could provide more details about its terms.

At stake is how much control a single company, and a foreign one at that, should have over Internet access for potentially millions of people. The debate has turned largely on whether Free Basics meets the standards of Net neutrality, the principle of equal access to all types of content and services on the Internet.

Facebook has been criticized for deciding what type of content would be offered and for potentially giving preferential treatment to certain websites. Critics have also said that Free Basics forces companies to offer certain Facebook services for free.

Some have also questioned Facebook's motives behind Free Basics. Facing a saturation point in developed areas such as the US and Europe, the company wants to find more users in developing nations. Free Basics, which is available in 36 countries, has been one way for Facebook to spread its influence in areas such as Asia, Africa and Latin America.

TRAI hasn't been India's only critic of Free Basics. A Save The Internet movement faults the program for violating Net neutrality and has accused Facebook of dishonesty in response to opposition to Free Basics. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends Free Basics, arguing that it gives poor people at least some access to news, health information and other useful online content.

Zuckerberg contends that offering the entire Internet for free would be unsustainable. In an opinion piece published by the Times of India in December, Facebook's CEO compared free but limited Internet service to access to libraries and public hospitals. While libraries "don't contain every book," he wrote, "they still provide a world of good." And although public hospitals don't offer every treatment, "they still save lives."

TRAI's regulation, dubbed "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016," applies to all companies, not just Facebook. The regulation itself is a blow to so-called zero-rating services, which offer certain Internet content to people without eating into their allotment of mobile data.

"Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform," a Facebook spokesman said via email. "While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings."

Update, 11:30 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Facebook.

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