Facebook CEO says basics shutdown won’t keep Internet.org out of India
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India effectively banned Facebook's Free Basics program from the country, ruling that the system and others like it violate the principles of net neutrality. It's a big setback for Facebook's Internet.org program, which looks to provide basic connectivity to poor nations - but in a post today, Mark Zuckerberg said the ruling would not push Internet.org out of India entirely. "Our mission is to make the world more open and connected," Zuckerberg wrote. "That mission continues, and so does our commitment to India."
In the post, Zuckerberg framed the ruling as a defeat for Free Basics and other zero-rated programs rather than Internet.org at large. "While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world," the Facebook CEO wrote. "Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet."
While Free Basics has traditionally been the centerpiece of Internet.org's access efforts, the organization is also working on a number of other projects that could be deployed without violating TRAI's recent order, including ambitious satellite and drone-based internet systems developed in the company's Connectivity Lab. It remains unclear whether Internet.org will shift away from Free Basics outside of India, although the system may face similar challenges in other countries. Internet.org has provided some form of connectivity in more than 38 countries across the world, the vast majority of those connecting through Free Basics.
Facebook Inc.'s plans for expansion in India have suffered a major setback.
After the company spent months lobbying the country to accept its Free Basics service -- a way of delivering a limited Internet that included Facebook, plus some other tools, for no cost -- India's telecom regulator ruled against any plans from cellular operators that charge different rates to different parts of the Web.
Telecom operators can't offer discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content, and aren't allowed to enter into agreements with Internet companies to subsidize access to some websites, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said in a statement Monday. Companies violating the rules will be fined, it said.
"This is the most extensive and stringent regulation on differential pricing anywhere in the world," Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, said via phone. "Those who suggested regulation in place of complete ban have clearly lost."
With this decision, India joins countries such as the U.S., Brazil and the Netherlands in passing laws that restrict telecom operators from discriminating Internet traffic based on content. It is a big blow to Facebook's Internet sampler plan known as Free Basics, which is currently offered in about three dozen countries including Kenya and Zambia, none of which come close to the scale or reach that could've been achieved in India.
With 130 million Facebook users, 375 million people online, and an additional 800 million-plus who aren't, India is the biggest growth market for the social network, which remains blocked in China.
Facebook said in a statement that it's "disappointed with the outcome." Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said the decision won't cause Facebook to give up on connecting people to the Internet in India, "because more than a billion people in India don't have access to the Internet." The company will continue to focus on its other initiatives, like extending networks using satellites, drones and lasers.
The rule will put an end to prepaid plans that offered free access to services such as Google searches, the WhatsApp messaging application and Facebook. These packages were popular with lowincome users by giving them an incentive to get online, said Rajan Mathews, director general of the lobby group Cellular Operators Association of India. "These types of plans were being used by operators to meet the policy goals of connecting one billion people," Matthews said. "With these gone, the government needs to tell us what alternatives are there."