Facebook's Free Internet Service Banned in India

John Lister's picture

The Indian government has banned Facebook from offering free Internet access in the country. Officials said the program breached net neutrality principles by favoring some sites over others.

Since 2013, Facebook has offered a service called Free Basics in some nations where Internet access is unaffordable to large parts of the population. Most of these countries are in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

The service, offered in partnership with cellphone operators, gives users free access to data usage on a smart phone, which for many users will be their primary or only way of getting online. However, the free service only works through a dedicated app, which only offers access to a limited range of websites and online tools - including, as you might expect, Facebook.

Free Service Dubbed Discriminatory Tariff

Now the Indian government says such plans are unlawful. It's specified several rules including that "No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content." That's applicable here as, by offering the free deal, the mobile operators are effectively charging more to access websites that aren't part of the program. (Source: techcrunch.com)

The rules are designed to uphold a principle known as net neutrality. While the precise definition is sometime disputed, the general idea is that companies which carry Internet data should treat all (lawful) content in the same way.

How rigidly the principle should be applied is hotly disputed. For example: few people might argue that it shouldn't be used to stop cable companies charging customers more on their broadband bill if they want to access particular websites, or blocking customers from accessing sites supporting a particular political party or campaign.

Data Cap Exemptions Another Disputed Issue

However, in other cases there's more of an argument. For example, several US carriers offer deals where some video content doesn't count towards mobile data usage caps. The arguments about the limits of net neutrality in those cases have involved issues such as whether the carriers allow all video content providers to take part in the program, and whether the carriers should be allowed to charge a fee or "sponsorship" to providers who want their material excluded from data caps.

In the Indian case, the debate seems to come down to differing approaches to the very idea of the Internet. Net neutrality advocates say the whole point of the Internet is that every website should have as fair a chance as possible to attract visitors based on the quality of its content. In contrast Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg argues that such programs make it possible to get more people online by breaking down price barriers, thus helping the Internet work better. (Source: facebook.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Was the Indian government right to ban such services? Is upholding net neutrality an important part of maintaining the Internet as we know it? Or should carriers be allowed more flexibility if they make the case that it benefits customers?

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Dennis Faas's picture

This is an interesting debate, however, I'm certain most people in India without any Internet access at all will take "some" Internet versus none. As far as Facebook is concerned, they might be able to work a deal such that free Internet access world-wide be available during certain hours of the day, though technically this may also defeat net neutrality. Once again, some is better than one especially if it's free!

blueboxer2's picture

This is, of course, an attempt by Facebook to circumvent net neutrality. Even though it comes wrapped in a bribe with apparently seriously significant social benefits, it still violates a fundamental principal of Indian law and, in fact, international internet regulation.

India's right; the camel's nose is not in the tent to serve its citizens' interests. It may be offering a free ride, but only to the edge of the slippery slope. Smack it on the snout and send it away.

Chief's picture

The argument about neutrality is nothing but a smoke screen to cover the real issue that the government and its cronies are not making any money off people who receive "free" internet services.

In a free society the individual has the right of refusal.

In a socialistic democratic dictatorship the government has the right of refusal.

Keep the internet free!

hybridauth_Twitter_601675162's picture

I understand but pity on people who look at this in a charity point of view.

Please answer following questions

1. why does the data has to be unencrypted in facebook server even momentarily we are stepping back in security coz of this.

2. Facebook cannot spy on people in INdia. This is a threat to our national security as all this data is processed outside the country.

3. a packet of data must be treated the same irrespective of what it carries inside. This must be respected. We dont want people to live in a walled garden thinking facebook is internet.

4. It is very very discriminatory and very anti competitive to the market.

5. Yes we want internet so why dont facebook open up and give access to the whole internet even for certain time of the day. This way it doesnt go against net neutrality. This will not happen coz the buisness model has phases and ultimately the end users of India will pay more for data as facebook is not shelling out money only the operator.

6. IF facebook gives you a free smartphone which will record everything in cam and mic and analyse and sell you adds will you accept it and say some phone is better than none.

and last but not least we dont want digital slavery.