After a fevered internet debate that pitted it against startups, entrepreneurs and ordinary internet users across India, Facebook has been dealt a body blow over its Free Basics proposal. India’s telecom regulatory body TRAI today issued the ‘Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016’ that bars service providers from offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.
TRAI’s ruling decreed the following.
- No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged by the service provider for the purpose of evading the prohibition in this regulation.
- Reduced tariff for accessing or providing emergency services, or at times of public emergency has been permitted.
- Financial disincentives for contravention of the regulation have also been specified.
This move effectively makes Facebook’s Free Basics illegal in India. Free Basics had aimed to partner with telecom operators like Reliance to provide certain basic internet services, which included Facebook itself, for free in India. Facebook’s argument had been that India’s poorest couldn’t offer to pay for internet services and this move would bring them online. Critics of the policy, however, had maintained that this scheme went against the free and democratic spirit of the internet, and created a walled garden of services that corporations might benefit from.
Facebook had pulled out all stops in order to convince the Indian government to accept its proposal, including spending a whopping Rs. 300 crore in a marketing blitzkrieg that included tv commercials and large hoardings across major Indian cities. It had also asked Facebook users to send their support to TRAI, a move that was criticized as being ingenuous by several internet commentators. TRAI too had lambasted its email scheme, claiming that Facebook was trying to subvert the debate and trying to turn it into a “crudely majoritarian opinion poll.”
India’s digital masses had jumped into action, making videos, signing petitions and trying to raise awareness against Facebook’s proposed move. The efforts of these individuals have finally borne fruit, and Facebook has learnt that throwing a large sum of money can’t influence policy making in India.