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Indian Regulators Suspend Facebook's Free Basic Services

Telecommunications regulators in India have ordered the suspension of Facebook's controversial program to bring free basic Internet services to mobile phone users in the country.

Facebook's program, called Free Basics, is one of the signature projects of, the company's ambitious plan to bring the Internet to the billions of people around the world who do not have it. Under the initiative, the company works in partnership with local telephone carriers in 35 countries to offer free access to a text-only version of the Facebook social network as well as to certain news, health, job and other services.

The idea is to give novices a taste of the Internet and encourage them to buy paid data services when they want to explore the Internet more widely. But critics say that by offering a free package of handpicked services, Facebook and its partners are discouraging people from using competing services and violating the principle of net neutrality, which calls for telecommunications carriers to treat all Internet services equally. In India, for example, the program offers free web searches using Microsoft's Bing service but Google searches incur a charge.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, has been particularly keen to expand Free Basics in India, which already has more Facebook users than any other country except the United States. Facebook has waged an aggressive advertising campaign in newspapers and on its own social network to build support for the program.

But Facebook has encountered a series of setbacks, including intense opposition from net neutrality advocates, the poor marketing efforts and weak network of its Indian phone partner, and skepticism from regulators.

One of those regulators, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, has now told Reliance Communications, Facebook's partner in India, to stop offering Free Basics. The order -- which was quietly issued about two weeks ago but leaked to the Indian news media this week -- came after Reliance failed to turn over information about the terms and conditions of the service, which it had planned to expand across the country beginning last month.

"Till such details are submitted to the authority, the launch of the service shall be put in abeyance," Ram Sewak Sharma, the agency's chairman, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Mr. Sharma said that Reliance had told the authority that it would delay expansion of Free Basics. In the meantime, the agency is seeking public comments on proposed regulations for Free Basics and similar free services offered by mobile phone carriers.

Reliance did not respond to an email requesting comment on the suspension.

In a statement, Facebook said, "We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected."

Free Internet services, known as zero-rated services, have also become an issue in the United States. This month, the Federal Communications Commission sent letters requesting information from T-Mobile, AT&T and Comcast about plans that allow customers access to certain streaming video services without incurring data charges. The F.C.C. said it wanted to understand whether the free access conflicted with American net neutrality regulations.

[Source: By Vindu Goel, The New York Times, 23Dec15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 28Dec15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.