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India Trades Free Basics for Internet Freedom

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 9, 2016 2:38 PM PT

India's Telecom Regulatory Authority on Monday ruled in favor of Net neutrality, effectively banning Facebook's Free Basics Internet access app.

India Trades Free Basics for Internet Freedom

"This is a very important decision for the future of the Internet in India," said Barbara van Schewick, director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, whose paper the TRA cited in its ruling.

The TRA decided "ISPs should not pick winners and losers online," she told the E-Commerce Times. "The Internet is a level playing field where users, not ISPs, decide what they want to do online."

"Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, nonexclusive and free platform," said Facebook spokesperson Derick Mains.

His comments echoed CEO Mark Zuckerberg's reaction.

"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," Mains told the E-Commerce Times.

The TRA's Ruling

Differential tariffs may make overall Internet access more affordable, expanding and accelerating Internet access, but they also classify subscribers based on the content they want to access, according to the TRA.

Such classification "may potentially go against the principle of non-discriminatory tariff" and disadvantage small content providers, the ruling states. Further, telecom service providers, or TSPs, may promote their own websites, apps or services platforms by offering lower rates to access them.

Unlike traditional markets where producers and consumers are distinct, Internet users are also content producers, the TRA said.

Also, every service provider is dependent on other networks, and no one TSP controls the entire Internet infrastructure, so allowing a provider that "is at one edge of the Internet to charge differentially for data that it does not alone process, could compromise the entire architecture of the Internet itself" and could alter the openness of the Internet, the ruling says.

"In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be (the) equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users' Internet experience," it continues, and this "can prove to be risky."

Letting TSPs charge differential rates on a case-by-case basis -- an option van Schewick's paper addresses -- "creates substantial social costs," notes the ruling.

Therefore, offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content -- directly or indirectly, through refunds or other means -- is prohibited, the TRA ruled. However, it's OK to provide limited free data that lets users access the entire Internet.

"If ISPs really want to get more people online, they can, for example, offer 500 MB of bandwidth to everyone at 2G speeds, but what people do with that bandwidth is their choice," van Schewick said.

Arguments for Free Basics

More than 80 percent of Indians polled supported Free Basics, according to a Facebook-commissioned survey conducted last year.

However, only about 3,100 adults across the country, all of whom reportedly were Internet users, responded to the survey.

Only about 19 percent of Indians -- more than 243 million people -- have access to the Internet, according to Internet Live Stats.

"Statistical validity can only be assumed for truly random surveys," said Mike Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan. "It starts from a constrained population that's defined by Internet use."

Still, "you should only regulate something once you have it," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Regulating preemptively only ensures that the thing being regulated never happens. People vote with their feet when they have to pay."

On the other hand, zero rating is "a dangerous approach," noted Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It often "reduces competition, diverts users toward already-dominant Internet services, and creates the potential for censorship, and privacy and security problems," he told the E-Commerce Times. "We hope it will encourage Facebook and its partners to examine other ways to bring the Internet to India's poor."


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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