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Facebook withdraws Free Basics project in India

The social media giant has said it will continue to work towards breaking down barriers to connectivity in India.
Written by V L Srinivasan, Contributor on

In a sort of anti-climax, Facebook India has announced the scrapping of the controversial Free Basics project in the country in wake of the decision by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to ban differential pricing for zero-rated platforms.

Even as the debate over the developments continued, with the industry divided on the issue, speculations were rife in the industry that the telecom service providers may challenge TRAI's decision in the court, but the announcement put an end to such plans.

In a statement via email to the media on Thursday, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed that Free Basics would no longer be available to people in India, though it continues to operate in 38 countries in the world connecting 19 million people.

The announcement came a day after Facebook board member Marc Andreessen tweeted that India would be better economically if not for anti-colonialist ideas like net neutrality. However, he deleted the tweet following public uproar and even Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg distanced himself from Andreessen's statement.

"India has been personally important to me and Facebook. Early on in my thinking about our mission, I travelled to India and was inspired by the humanity, spirit and values of the people. It solidified my understanding that when all people have the power to share their experiences, the entire world will make progress," Zuckerberg said.

"Facebook stands for helping to connect people and giving them voice to shape their own future. But to shape the future we need to understand the past. As our community in India has grown, I've gained a deeper appreciation for the need to understand India's history and culture. I've been inspired by how much progress India has made in building a strong nation and the largest democracy in the world, and I look forward to strengthening my connection to the country.

"I want to respond to Marc Andreessen's comments and I found them deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all," he added.

The Free Basics project ran into controversy much before TRAI issued Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations 2016 early this week, which banned service providers from charging tariffs based on the content being accessed by the consumers.

The only solace Facebook got from the verdict was TRAI's decision to review the regulations after two years. This means Free Basics may stage a comeback in 2018 depending upon the situation at that time.

While the Cellular Operators Association of India and the Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India have been supportive of the project, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and internet activists opposed it, saying there was no need for such programmes to improve internet connectivity in India.

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