What are Free Basics and why did India block it?

Free Basics (under the umbrella of internet.org) is a service by Facebook to bring “essential services” of the internet to the unconnected people of the world for free. Doing so would improve their access to information on a variety of matters such as health, banking and of course, Facebook. Sites such as the BBC and Wikipedia were included. Facebook estimates that 50% of the people it connected this way upgraded to a paid plan within months.

The initiative was heavily publicised. The prime minister of India backed it on his social media accounts. The criticism came from the already-connected people of India: an internet that is curated by Facebook goes against the principle of net-neutrality. The protests were vociferous and it lead to a call for input by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), multiple rounds of consultation including an open-house that finally lead to the ruling (short version): internet service pricing that discriminated based on content in India was illegal. TRAI has made an exception for emergency services, with the caveat that the differential pricing for emergencies must be made known to TRAI within seven days.

What is the big deal with net-neutrality? Net-neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet should be treated equally i.e. It is not OK to prevent access to some sites or some types of content or to ask the user to pay extra for it. In the absence of net-neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to control what the user can and can’t do or see on the internet. Net-neutrality also acts in favour of openness of the internet, preventing sites with a particular agenda from dominating information.

A well-known example is when American ISP Comcast throttled the bandwidth of its users who viewed videos on streaming-site Netflix and demanded Netflix to pay charges for the additional bandwidth usage. Netflix was forced to pay after its users found themselves practically unable to view videos.

The BBC may be benign, but some may prefer their news to come from another provider who sees the world in a different light from the BBC. For one media organisation to dominate the news made available to the poor of India for free would be quite an impressive coup for that outlet – one that we really do not want, given that all media have their own agenda and political leanings.

TRAI has ruled that all plans that differentiate on content is banned. The decision is significant as it considers the threat against net-neutrality to be a more serious one than that a majority of Indians not be connected at all.

TRAI’s ruling in its entirety is worth reading for its detail and its simple language.