On Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) banned Facebook’s free internet service to the masses after rolling out a new set of rules after two months of consultation over the implications of net neutrality.
Facebook’s Free Basics app, formerly known as internet.org, offers what’s called pared-down internet service which gives users free basic access to apps on their mobile devices as well as Facebook and its messaging service. Free Basics currently runs in 35 developing countries.
However, India’s net neutrality laws state that all data and websites on the internet be treated equally, regardless of bandwidth — Free Basics does impose restrictions on high-bandwidth services like video streaming and file transfers.
The TRAI’s new rules state that mobile operators shoudn’t be allowed to “shape the users’ Internet experience.”
While the rules specifically target telecom companies who would otherwise enact differential pricing based on tiered web services, Facebook’s free service unfortunately doesn’t allow access to the whole internet — only free internet to certain sites.
According to TRAI, “Providing limited free data that enables a user to access the entire Internet is not prohibited.”
Critics of Free Basics argue that it violates net neutrality by prioritizing certain content, specifically websites and apps that are registered with the service, and would leave small content providers and startups that don’t participate at a disadvantage.
TRAI Chairman Ram Sevak Sharma explained in a conference:
“Essentially everything on the Internet is agnostic in the sense that it cannot be priced differently.”
A disappointed Facebook explained in a statement on Monday:
“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, nonexclusive 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.”
In India’s massive emerging internet market, only 252 million out of its 1.3 billion people have access to the internet.