India Shutters Facebook's Free Web Access Program

Courtesy of Facebook

Free Basics, the program developed by Facebook which seeks to provide low-income people in emerging markets like Africa and India with a limited -- but free -- way to access the web, has been shut down following an order by India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI). The order arrives just over a month after TRAI instructed Facebook's telecom partner for the program, Reliance Communications, to suspend the Free Basics program.

Free Basics operates via agreements like the one it had with Reliance and would provide mobile users with free access to select websites and services, which are first required to submit themselves for inclusion in Free Basics.

"No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content," reads TRAI's statement on its policy. With this sentence TRAI made crystal clear its support for the principles of net neutrality; that no deals with a particular service provider, like Reliance, would determine the content people are allowed to access.

Free Basics was a "zero-rating" system (a term which does a poor job of explaining a simple concept), meaning, due to agreements between Free Basics and Reliance (or T-Mobile and streaming music services), customers aren't charged for data usage. While that sounds like a win for users, these agreements generally only apply to outlets and services (think Netflix, or the New York Times -- neither of which are involved in any zero-rating programs) that the service provider has reached agreements with.

The Hindustan Times received a statement from Facebook in which the social giant laments the Indian regulator's decision. "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."

A few days after that order the program was also suspended in Egypt. No explanation was given.

As Billboard has noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with providing cheap access to the web to the underserved. But at issue here is not that access, but the plutocratic contours of these initiatives, regardless of their intentions.


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