Facebook’s plan to provide free internet to the developing world just hit another hurdle: The Indian regulator is ordering a temporary ban on the service, called Free Basics, reports The Times of India.
Free Basics — part of Internet.org — is a service offered by the social network in some emerging markets that lets users access some websites for free.
The aim is to help bring people online for the first time, but has come under sustained criticism for allegedly violating the principles of net neutrality.
Net neutrality dictates that all data should be treated equally, and companies cannot pay for faster access or preferential treatment, so as not to stifle innovation and create hurdles for startups unable to pay. But because Free Basics zero-rates — that is, subsidises — the websites that appear on its platform, it arguably doesn’t stick to the spirit of net neutrality.
Free Basics also creates a two-tier internet system: The (relatively) wealthy can afford to use the entire web, while those stuck using Free Basics are only able to access the services available in Facebook’s “walled garden.”
In India, Free Basics partners with the telecom Reliance Communications — but Reliance has now reportedly been ordered by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to halt Free Basics while it investigates its potential non-compliance with net neutrality .”The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen,” a senior government official told the Times of India.
They added: “We have asked them (Reliance Communications) to stop it and they have given us a compliance report that it has been stopped.”
Earlier this week, Facebook asked its users to lobby TRAI in support of Free Basics in India. The message calling for support was apparently only meant to go out to Indian Facebook users, but multiple American users have also reported receiving it. According to Re/code, the social network says that this was an accident.
Free Basics (and Internet.org) has been repeatedly criticised. In May, 65 advocacy groups accused its walled garden model of threatening “freedom of expression.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has shot back at critics, accusing them of putting the “intellectual purity of technology above people’s needs.”
An aggressive editorial in the Hindustan Times in April described Free Basics as “Zuckerberg’s ambitious project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.”
TRAI’s reported ban on Free Basics is complicated by the fact that the service is still apparently available. The Times of India reports that “the Free Basics platform is available to subscribers of the telecom company when they log into the website, leaving a question mark over the compliance to the regulator’s order.”
Business Insider has reached out to Facebook for comment, and will update this story when it responds.