Shutting off free internet sounds like something no one would do, yet that is what is happening in India this week as Facebook’s Free Basics internet service is caught in an ongoing net neutrality argument in the country.
The company’s Free Basics service, part of its Internet.org project, has had a controversial year in India with net neutrality proponents arguing that it only provides access to content curated by Facebook, and thus those companies that partner with Facebook. Reliance Communications — a large Indian telco — reported that it has been ordered to stop providing access to Free Basics by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The TRAI has said that it is weighing the legality of Facebook’s service.
TechCrunch reports that Reliance has about 110 million users and had made Free Basics available to all of its subscribers last month.
At the heart of this matter is the problem of figuring out how to connect India’s millions of people without internet access in a way that not only includes India-based businesses, but also allows users to gain access to the “free and open internet.” Facebook took care of the “free” part, but the open aspect is under scrutiny here. How free is any internet curated by a biased service? Facebook argues that, regardless of the types of content available through Free Basics, it is doing more than any other company (except Google, maybe) to reach unconnected users.
And many question whether the better idea is to give millions of people access to any internet, even if it is an internet curated by Facebook. Is biased web access better than no access? These kinds of questions will play out in 2016 in India and elsewhere as Facebook takes its Internet.org project to more regions. The success of Free Basics in India will be an important barometer for the rest of the initiative’s trajectory.