Facebook's freebie Internet service comes under fire in India

The social network's Free Basics offering packages Internet services for regions where online access is limited. Officials in India wonder whether the service is fair.

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A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
2 min read

Facebook's Free Basics is having some trouble in India, with critics saying the service turns the Net into a walled garden.


Regulators in India want to pull the plug on Facebook's controversial Free Basics service.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has requested that the sole company in that country to offer Free Basics, which provides rudimentary access to the Internet, put a halt to the program, according to a report in the Times of India.

It's unclear whether the service is actually accessible at the moment. Wednesday's report cited an unnamed official who said that the Free Basics provider, Reliance Communications, has complied with the request, but also that its own check showed that the service still seems to be available.

At issue in India is whether the service meets the standards of Net neutrality, the principle that there should be equal access to all types of content and services on the Internet. The Indian regulator reportedly wants Reliance to give it details on the terms and conditions of Free Basics access as the agency weighs merits of varied pricing for different types of content.

Facebook created Free Basics to provide a set of Internet services in areas including news, maternal health, local jobs and local government information. It has provided those services as part of its Internet.org initiative, which launched in 2014, in countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America where online access has been limited or nonexistent.

But the initiative has been a lightning rod for critics who say it actually gets in the way of a free and open Internet, creating a walled garden favoring Facebook and a small number of online venues. Others have accused Facebook, the world's largest social network, of forcing companies to offer their services at no cost.

In April, several Web publishers in India withdrew from Internet.org, saying Facebook gave preferential treatment to certain sites, services and platforms.

On Wednesday, the Menlo Park, California-based company defended its efforts in India.

"We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected," a Facebook spokesperson said.

Reliance Communications and the TRAI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.