In April, Facebook debuted its free internet project—Free Basics—in India. Almost immediately, the tech giant encountered great opposition from Internet activists who argued that the project violates the “net neutrality” principle which dictates that all consumers should be able to access the whole of the Internet.
And so, on Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India agreed and promptly began to prohibit data service providers from offering internet or charging varying prices for data, including internet service that is absolutely free.
Unfortunately, this is not the only obstacle Facebook’s Free Basics project has encountered. In Egypt, for example, the government has completely banned the project; Google pulled the project in Zambia.
In regards to this announcement, founder and creator of India’s PayTM payment application, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, commented that—along with the program’s fiercest critics—the Free Basics strategy could be considered “poor internet for poor people.” This, he says, somewhat recalls the days of British colonialism and its relationship with the East India [trading] Company.
As such, a spokesperson from Facebook has noted, “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings.”
Of course, India is one of the largest markets in the world. The country has approximately 300 million mobile web users but nearly one billion people do not have any access to proper internet at all. Even with this disparity, though, India is still second only to the United States in number of Facebook users—130 million—as Facebook continues to focus on expanding outside of the First World.
As could be expected, too, Facebook has launched a public relations campaign to buffer what will surely be quite the media blitz. But some analysts caution that this might not generate the result Facebook is looking for. Sunil Abraham, of the Center for Internet and Society, in Bangalore, notes, “Facebook went overboard with its propaganda [and] convinced ‘the powers that be’ that it cannot be trusted with mature stewardship of our information society.”
For now, then, the regulator warns that violating the current order will result in a $735 fine (per day).