Facebook’s attempt to introduce “Free Basics,” an internet service for low-income Indians that only offered access to Facebook and a number of the site’s partners, has been blocked by regulators.
The service, offered by Facebook’s Indian telecoms partner, Reliance Communications, offered Indians access to a selection of employment, health, and online shopping sites, Wikipedia, and of course Facebook itself.
However, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has now blocked the program until it makes a decision on whether Facebook’s service violates net neutrality principles.
According to The Times of India, the TRAI staked out their position in a July report, which concluded that “collaborations between telecom service providers and content providers that enable such gatekeeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged.”
Free Basics has been criticised by activists as violating Net Neutrality, which calls for internet service providers not to favour or penalise any particular websites. Activists accuse Facebook of setting up a “walled garden” of their favoured sites.
Facebook originally intended Free Basics to be a philanthropic activity, to provide free internet access to the poorest regions of the world. In addition to India, Facebook partnered with telecoms companies in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.
Facebook has sought to harness its own users to pressure Indian regulators, urging them to sign an online petition backing Free Basics. Facebook set up a template email on their site which users could use to send an email to the TRAI. However, Facebook came under criticism after it was revealed that non-Indian users were (accidentally, according to Facebook) asked to join the campaign in support of Free Basics.
Some Facebook users also complained that it was too easy to accidentally support the petition, with some users finding they had been automatically signed up to the petition simply by scrolling down the support page.