India telco authority: Facebook may have overstated support for Free Basics by 9.1m people

Facebook users responding to the net neutrality debate in India failed to answer the questions asked in the consultation paper, with Facebook claiming 9.1 million more responses were made than the authority received.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has revealed its correspondence with Facebook over the Free Basics net neutrality debate, with TRAI claiming that Facebook either overstated its users' messages of support by 5.8 times, saying 11 million people had responded to the consultation paper -- or that 9.1 million responses were somehow never received by the authority.

The debate began when Facebook launched its Free Basics service -- previously known as Internet.org -- in partnership with telecommunications carrier Reliance Communications in 2015. For those living in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana, Free Basics provided free access to certain internet services, such as news, travel, jobs, sports, health, and local government information.

The initiative faced criticism that it had violated net neutrality principles and created a two-tier internet, where only those who could afford to pay would get full access. Facebook, on the other hand, argued that it was more important to connect a greater number of people to the internet than to get bogged down in net neutrality debates.

In response, TRAI ordered Reliance Communications to suspend Free Basics in December. TRAI then released a consultation paper, Differential Pricing for Data Services [PDF].

In the paper, the regulator requested comments from stakeholders in answer to four questions: Whether differential pricing should be allowed for data usage over different websites, apps, and platforms; what measures could be adopted to protect non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition, and innovation if differential pricing were allowed; alternative methods for providing free internet; and whether there were any other issues that should be considered for differential pricing.

TRAI said [PDF] that it received 2.4 million responses in total, with 544,000 of these received through an email with the Facebook mail domain name, and 1.35 million from the "support free basics.in" domain name.

None of the responses originating from the Facebook and Free Basics domain names answered the four questions raised in the paper, however, with users simply sending over a fixed template response.

As a result, TRAI wrote a letter to Facebook on January 1, requesting that the company inform its users that they needed to answer the questions if they wished their responses to be used during the consultation.

Facebook director of Public Policy for India and South and Central Asia Ankhi Das wrote back to TRAI on January 6, claiming that the "more than 11 million" responses had sufficiently showed support in favour of Free Basics.

"We are pleased to inform you that our records show that more than 11 million people sent TRAI an email supporting digital equality and Free Basics. We believe the answers already address your questions, as the comments clearly support rules that will allow Free Basics to continue to operate under any regulatory regime," Das wrote.

"As suggested by you, we have reached out to the users who responded through Facebook, asking them to specifically answer the four questions that you have raised in the consultation paper."

When TRAI received no updated responses by the closing submission date on January 7, it expressed doubt as to whether Facebook had conveyed its message to users to answer the specific questions posed by the consultation paper.

"We are unable to make out whether you have communicated TRAI's message to all users who had earlier sent their responses to us through platforms provided by you," TRAI advisor K V Sebastian wrote in a letter to Das on January 7.

"TRAI would like to convey its disappointment to Facebook on the issue, as we do not have the benefit of [receiving relevant responses from] such [a] large number of users ... not even a single revised response has come from any such user."

TRAI went on to say that Facebook's claim of 11 million responses was either substantially overstated, or that 9.1 million responses were somehow never received by TRAI.

"Your ibid response also claims that more than 11 million people have sent email[s] to TRAI supporting digital equality and free basics. However, as per our records, the number of responses received through both platforms as on 6th January 2016 is only 18.90 lakhs (1.89 million).

"Hence, either the figures provided by you are wrong, or TRAI has not received the rest of the responses."

TRAI has requested that Facebook disclose whether it passed along TRAI's messages to its users, in what manner, and on what date, with Facebook yet to respond.

The net neutrality debate has been escalating since the launch of Free Basics in India, with a group called Save the Internet (STI) saying that free internet could be provided in ways that don't promote some websites and carriers to the detriment of others.

"There are other successful models for providing free internet access to people, without giving a competitive advantage to Facebook," STI said.

"By encouraging people to choose Free Basics, Facebook reduces the propensity to bring down data costs for paid internet access."

In an article written for The Times of India at the end of December, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg countered that any form of free internet would bring greater equality to India. Zuckerberg also compared the provision of only some free services to similar offerings by public hospitals, libraries, and basic schools.

"In the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights," Zuckerberg wrote.

"We know that when people have access to the internet, they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication. We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet ... Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality."

Zuckerberg added that Free Basics is consistent with net neutrality, as any telco or website could partner with the service -- and "this isn't about Facebook's commercial interests".

In regards to uptake of Free Basics in India, an article by The Economic Times in October claimed that the majority of people living in low socio-economic areas -- ie, the targeted user base -- had no knowledge of the service. They had heard of Reliance Communications, however, and its reputation for providing inferior network coverage in comparison to other telcos.

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