Net Neutrality Standoff Escalates As TRAI Hauls Facebook Over the Coals
Even as the Parliamentary panel on net neutrality is set to meet next week, the ongoing war between Facebook and TRAI has started intensifying.
Social networking giant Facebook has alleged that someone at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) office has blocked emails from its websites through which people shared their views on differential pricing for data services, a key issue of net neutrality.
In a startling series of e-mail exchanges made public on January 19, the regulatory body delivered a scathing indictment of Facebook’s lobbying practices, accusing the company of converting the regulator’s consultation process into a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll” and wilfully disregarding its request to better inform Facebook’s users.
After TRAI circulated a consultation paper on regulatory framework for differential pricing, Facebook has launched a public campaign to defend its free Internet platform Free Basics, through which it aims to provide free access to select websites and applications.
The social media has launched a massive campaign to gather support in its favour, as it apprehends that the regulator may ban its Free Basics platform, which allows access to some applications and websites.
In a letter to the regulator, Facebook has said that despite clear and timely efforts by millions of Indians to send their comments, “someone with access to designated TRAI email account appears to have blocked receipt of all emails from Facebook to that TRAI account,” reports the sources.
The letter written by Ankhi Das, Facebook’s Public Policy Director for India, states that “Specifically, our inquiry revealed that on December 17 05:51:53 GMT, an individual … took action that blocked Facebook from delivering any additional emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. This appears to have been accomplished by unsubscribing from receiving all further emails from Facebook, effectively requesting that Facebook cease delivering emails to the address. This action prevented the Facebook system from sending further responsive emails to TRAI.”
The last date for public comments on TRAI paper was earlier December 30, which was later extended to January 7. As per TRAI data, it has received around 24 lakh comments till January 7.
In response, TRAI has made public a series of mail exchanges with Facebook in which it has slammed the social media site.
In response to Das’s letter, which is dated January 13, TRAI’s Joint Adviser K.V. Sebastian points out that if the regulatory body had been informed right away, it could have taken steps to correct the error.
In his reply, Sebastian writes “If this were indeed the case, TRAI should have been informed immediately for appropriate steps to be taken. In fact, a similar instance of user complaint regarding the non-functioning of an email address during the response period for this Consultation paper was brought to the notice of TRAI by individual stakeholders and the situation was immediately rectified. It is surprising that it took over 25 days for you to inform TRAI of this.”
Sebastian further points out that in the spirit of ensuring that all points are heard, which TRAI made clear to Facebook in a meeting on January 14, the regulator will take into account all relevant responses that are made available to it; including ones that Facebook handed over to TRAI on a pen-drive on January 14.
Releasing number of responses received through facebookmail.com and supportfreebasics.in, TRAI has said that it received only 1.89 million, while Facebook’s claimed the number to be more than 11 million supporting its plan to make parts of the Internet available for free under ‘Free Basics’.
This is first ever consultation paper on which TRAI has received maximum comments from people.
An enquiry of a record 24 lakh comments, as disclosed by TRAI to its consultation paper on differential pricing for data services, shows that 18.94 lakh replies are in support of Free Basics, of which 13.5 lakh views are through supportfreebasics.in and without the senders individual e-mail IDs, while further 5.44 lakh comments have come from facebookmail.com.
On the other hand, the Net Neutrality campaigners have submitted 4.84 lakh comments through forums like Save the Internet. Besides, there are also comments from telecom and Internet service providers, industry bodies and individuals.
Telecome operators such as Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Reliance Communications and their respective associations, have supported differential pricing for data services, while Internet service providers have opposed the plan.
“For the growth of data service, price differentiation for data services can be allowed,” operators have submitted.
Nasscom said issues concerning differential pricing for data services need careful consideration because of their possible impact on net neutrality. On the other hand, the IT industry body said data plans offered by telecom companies to the consumer have to be neutral between their own and competing Internet platforms and services.