Mark Zuckerberg's "Free Basics" platform under Internet.org suffered a huge defeat in India. The platform provides free Internet connection to under-served areas with little or no Internet connection, but the access to the Internet is limited to certain "basic" ad-free apps, including Facebook. On February 8, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India issued "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations”—which bans differential pricing arrangements for internet access, including the practice known as "zero rating" by which Internet usage of certain preferred apps does not count toward paid data usage, but use of other apps does.
TRAI explained its concern: "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 equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users' internet experience. This can prove to be risky in the medium to long term as the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made availablethrough those select offerings. Further, to the extent that affordability of access is noted to be a cause for exclusion, it is not clear as to how the same users will be in a position to migrate to the open internet if they do not have the resources to do so in the first place."
Specifically, the Rule bars:
- 29. Taking into account responses in the consultation, relevant international experience, expert opinion, research studies and all other inputs, the Authority has concluded that a clear rule should be formulated-the practice of offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content, is to be prohibited. Therefore, TSPs are prohibited from offering different tariffs based on the content, service, application or other data that a user is accessing or transmitting on the internet. Tariff for data services cannot vary on the basis of the website/application/platform/or type of content being accessed. For example, a : consumer cannot be charged differently based on whether she is browsing social media site A or B, or on whether she is watching streaming videos or shopping on the internet.
- 30. Further, applying the principle that what cannot be done directly, cannot also be done indirectly, TSPs are also prohibited from entering into arrangements that have the same effect as charging discriminatory tariffs on the basis of content. Thus, an arrangement by which, instead of a service provider differentially charging tariffs to the consumer, other arrangements are made by the TSPs which in effect make accessing some content cheaper, for example through a refund to the consumer or other methods, are likewise barred.
Facebook announced it was suspending the Free Basics service in India. Mark Zuckerberg, who put a lot of his own time and energy to the Free Basics program in India, expressed his disappointment on Facebook: "While we're disappointed with today's decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. Internet.org has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet."