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Battle over Facebook's Free Basics internet service intensifies in India

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India expected to come out with final guidelines on net neutrality within a fortnight.
Written by V L Srinivasan, Contributor

The war of words over Facebook launching Free Basics app to offer free internet service to users of the Reliance network in six states -- Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana -- has intensified with internet users across the country divided on the issue.

While Facebook launched an e-mail campaign urging people to save Free Basics, members of Save The Internet (STI) have been fighting tooth and nail against the same on the ground that it was a threat to net neutrality in the country.

Both sides have launched aggressive print and social media campaigns in support of their arguments and called upon the people to mail/submit petitions to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) expressing their stands.

TRAI has received close to 570,000 comments out of which over 550,000 were through Facebook's campaign. The regulator will receive the public comments till December 30 and counter comments until January 7.

In an article entitled Free Basics protects net neutrality in Times of India, Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that as of today, everyone in India can access free internet services for health, education, jobs and communication through Internet.org's Free Basics on the Reliance network.

Asserting that Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India, he also offered to address the issues raised by people regarding the free internet service.

"We are open to other approaches and encourage innovation. But today this programme is creating huge benefits for people and the entire internet ecosystem. There is no valid basis for denying people the choice to use Free Basics, and that's what thousands of people across India have chosen to tell TRAI over the last few weeks," he said.

However, STI said that there were many ways to provide internet access to people without discrimination between web services and without violating net neutrality.

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

Facebook doesn't pay for Free Basics but telecom operators collect charges from the users.

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

STI also said that Free Basics was not an open platform, as Facebook defined the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them.

Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUTSPI) Secretary General Ashok Sud said that Free Basics was another citizen service which cannot be denied by the service providers, and they should be allowed to fix their tariffs.

"This is not the real way the world works, and one cannot demand that everybody should have open access to such services," Sud told ZDNet.

In a related development, TRAI, which has asked Reliance to suspend the free internet service until further notice, said that it was looking to solve the issues and would soon come up with the final guidelines based on the views received from different stakeholders.

TRAI Chairman R S Sharma told Press Trust of India that they were expected to resolve some of the issues pertaining to the basic principles of net neutrality next year.

Indian Minister for Communication and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad told Parliament in August this year that there were no specific rules for protection of net neutrality, but it has formed a committee to study the issue. The committee gave its report and his Ministry has sought the opinion of the stakeholders before taking a decision on the report, Prasad added.

The minister further said that India has third largest number of Internet users in the world behind the US and China. As of June 2015, more than 354 million people have been actively using the Internet, and their numbers are expected to be around 500 million by 2020.

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