Facebook pushes users to send messages to TRAI to ‘Save Free Basics’ in India
Social networking site Facebook is countering the Net Neutrality camp by influencing its user base to send emails to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in support of Free Basics in India, which allows telecom companies free internet access to selected website and apps such as Facebook.
Facebook users have started getting notifications from friends urging them to send a pre-written message to India’s telecom regulator TRAI to ‘save’ Free Basics and ‘achieve’ digital equality’ in India.
The campaign, which shows up when users sign onto the social media platform and includes a pre-filled form so they don’t even have to write an email, has already proven controversial, with opponents saying its message undermines net neutrality in India. The campaign called ‘Act Now to Save Free Basics in India’ asked users to send a message on Facebook’s behalf to TRAI which says, “I support Free Basics in India”.
The response pre-drafted by Facebook said that “To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country’s most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics and digital equality for India. Thank you.”
The campaign is run on the social networking site, which has over 130 million users in India, the second largest globally. It is similar to the ‘Save the Internet’ drive that was launched early this year by supporters of net neutrality against Internet.org, which was later renamed as Free Basics by Facebook, was an initiative by Facebook in partnership with Reliance Communications to provide free and preferential access to select application and services.
It further said that over a billion Indians would be hurt by the shutting down of the Free Basics program.
“But Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic Internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all Internet services, even if that means 1 billion people can’t afford to access any services… Unless you take action now, India could lose access to free basic Internet services, delaying progress towards digital equality for all Indians. Tell the TRAI that you support Free Basics and digital equality in India,” the Facebook message said.
The campaign comes almost a week after TRAI has issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, where it has asked if telecom operators should be allowed to have different pricing for accessing different websites, applications and platforms. TRAI said some service providers were offering differential data tariff with free or discounted tariffs to certain contents of certain websites, applications or platforms. TRAI which had invited comments on December 9 has set the deadline for recommendations and comments till December 31.
Facebook’s founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg had been rooting for the right to internet access as a basic right to all people. “With Free Basics, we are letting developers offer zero-rated services. This is powerful. We are not being a filter of any content going through that.” He added zero-rating is not against net neutrality.
Many people took issue with both the content and tone of Facebook’s message. For example, Trak.in, a tech blog, called the campaign “entirely false and misleading,” while newspaper The Times of India (which is run by net neutrality supporter The Times Group), stated in an editorial that “Facebook is just trying to play on the fact that most of us click the like button on its platform without reading or understanding the complete picture.”
When asked about the controversy, Facebook reiterated in a statement that it believes Free Basics will help people get full Internet access more quickly:
“Hundreds of millions of people in India use the Internet every day and understand the benefits it can bring. This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the one billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on differential pricing for data services. And it gives them the opportunity to support Free Basics, which is proven to bring more people online and accelerate full internet adoption,” said a Facebook spokesperson.