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Facebook's free internet service must be suspended says Indian regulator

The social network's telecoms partner in India has reportedly been told to stop offering Facebook's Free Basics service by domestic officials.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Photo: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

India's telecoms regulator has asked Facebook's only Free Basics partner in India to suspend the service until further notice.

Over the past week Facebook has launched an email campaign calling on users in India to save Free Basics, which launched in India last month with local partner Reliance Communications and provides free access to select internet services, including news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.

According to a local report, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has now ordered Reliance Communications to suspend the service.

The Times of India today quoted a senior official from the TRAI saying that it had asked Reliance Communications to stop offering Free Basics until it has submitted a compliance report. For now, however, it notes, the operator is still offering Free Basics to subscribers.

While Facebook's goal with Free Basics -- formerly known as internet.org -- is to bring access to more people in emerging markets, the plan has been widely criticised in India for violating the principles of net neutrality and potentially driving traffic to some sites over others. Critics see it as promoting a two-tier internet, with only those who can pay getting full, unfettered access.

Facebook launched an appeal last week calling on people in India to support Free Basics and petition the TRAI to save the service ahead of the regulator's public consultation on "differential pricing for data services".

Facebook's appeal follows an earlier campaign called Save the Internet, spearheaded by Indian comedians, which was against services like Free Basics and called upon lawmakers to adopt net neutrality principles.

"Free Basics gives people access to vital services, such as communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information - all without data charges. It helps those who can't afford to pay for data, or who need a little help with getting started online. And it's open to all people, developers and mobile networks," Facebook writes in the petition it wants Free Basics supporters to sign.

"However, Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means one billion people can't afford to access any services," it continues.

Critics of Facebook's petition have said the content of the email is misleading and an attempt to dupe Indians into thinking Facebook is supporting net neutrality. With Facebook using its notifications feature to push its message out, it's generated around 600,000 "Save Free Basics in India" petition emails to the regulator.

The consultation paper asks what should be done to ensure non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market access. It's also seeking ideas on alternatives to the type of plan Facebook has proposed under Free Basics. Submissions close on 30 December.

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