Facebook is asking users in India to support "digital equality" by backing its Free Basics initiative. The social network is asking users to send an email to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to show their support for Free Basics, which has come under flak several times for violating net neutrality guidelines.
Essentially, with Free Basics, Facebook is giving users access to basic services, such as communication, education, healthcare, employment, and more, for free. While the idea behind the initiative sounds great, it is limited to just one carrier in the country — Reliance — and Facebook has final say on what services are available on the platform.
Facebook, for its part, is stating that Free Basics is non-discriminatory and that it adheres to net neutrality guidelines. It is defending the initiative through a "Save Free Basics" campaign:
But Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality. Instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services – even if that means 1 billion people can't afford to access any services.
Here's the pre-written message Facebook is asking its users to forward to the TRAI:
To the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, I support digital equality for India. Free Basics provides free access to essential internet services like communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and more. It helps those who can't afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online.
And it's open to all people, developers and mobile operators. With 1 billion Indian people not yet connected, shutting down Free Basics would hurt our country's most vulnerable people. I support Free Basics – and digital equality for India. Thank you.
The message is entirely misleading, as it does not really enable "digital equality" in India. Facebook has rebranded Internet.org to Free Basics, but has done little to change the way the platform operates. The major issue with the service is that it gives an unfair advantage to whoever decides to collaborate with Facebook. For instance, if a retailer signs up for Free Basics, thereby allowing customers free access, it stands to reason that users will prefer going to that retailer versus a smaller site or service, where they'll incur data charges.
In a statement to Gadgets 360, Karthik Balakrishnan, a volunteer behind the SaveTheInternet campagin in the country, said:
This is something new, that Facebook is officially doing. I would be very surprised if they send emails to Trai for every submission that happened. Even though the campaign says email, it's mostly a signatory thing, they will collect all of this and send a collated list to claim that certain number of people have campaigned to save Free Basics.
Why is Facebook pushing users to save Free Basics now? TRAI has issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data-based services, which will directly affect zero-rated (read: services that don't incur data charges) platforms like Free Basics. The regulatory body is seeking comments until December 30, 2015. It will respond to the comments by January 7, wherein it will try to create a balancing act that ensures that basic services are available for free to users that cannot afford them, while at the same time making sure that a few players are not getting an unfair advantage.
We'll know more about where this leaves Facebook's Free Basics next month once TRAI has its verdict out on differential pricing, but until then, readers in the country should understand that the service is nothing more than yet another way for the social network to push its own services and agenda forward. Read the entirety of TRAI's latest consultation document below, and share your comments by heading to the regulatory authority's official website.