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Facebook Free Internet Hits Indian Regulator Buffers

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Net neutrality halts Facebook’s attempts to provide India with free Internet service

Facebook’s troubled Free Basics Internet program in India has suffered a setback after the Indian telecom regulator stepped in and demanded a halt.

Essentially, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asked Facebook’s India mobile partner (Reliance Communications) to put the Free Basics service on hold.

Net Neutrality

“As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, until they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance spokesman told the BBC. That spokesman said the watchdog had only explained its decision by saying it wanted to “examine the details and intrinsics” of the offer.

Free Basics By Facebook is the new name for the old Internet.org’s app and mobile website. Facebook made the change in September in a bid to separate the basic service from the organisation’s efforts to get more of the world’s people online.

Internet.org Free Basics By FacebookReliance began offering the scheme in India in February and then extended it to all its subscribers in November.

There is no word on how many people are using the service in India, but it is fair to say that Facebook has struggled to overcome Net neutrality concerns because of the way it works.

Essentially, Facebook partners with mobile network providers in a target country, and subscribers can then use that particular mobile network free of charge to access a fairly limited number of online services. For example, Google searches, BBC News, Facebook, Accuweather, Wikipedia etc can be accessed from the scheme.

Critics accused it of creating a ‘walled garden’ for Internet users in developing countries. In May this year, several dozen rights groups, including European Digital Rights (EDRi), signed an open letter to Facebook alleging that Internet.org violates network neutrality.

And both India and Chile have also been vocal in expressing concerns that Internet.org violates net neutrality rules. Facebook responded to these concerns by opening up the Internet.org platform to third party developers.

Troubled Project

Mark Zuckerberg first launched the Internet.org scheme back in August 2013, saying that its aim was to connect the so far unconnected parts of the world to the Internet.

Earlier this year Zuckerberg revealed that the scheme would also be coming to Europe.

He also denied at the time that the scheme compromises net neutrality, especially following protests against the scheme in countries such as India.

But the protests continued and Facebook soon realised it had to formally separate the controversial free curated web service (Free Basics) from its charitable initiative (Internet.org).

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