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Mark Zuckerberg's free internet set back by India ban

The country's telecoms regulator has blocked Facebook's Free Basics internet service app.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 09 May 2016

You’ve got to feel for Mark Zuckerberg. First Facebook’s billionaire owner announced his project to bring internet to areas which don’t have it and promptly ran into fierce criticism about net neutrality. Then he announced he was going to donate a substantial whack of his Facebook shares to charity (£30bn worth) and faced a barrage of scepticism about his motives. What’s a billionaire businessman got to do to convince people he just wants to make the world a better place?

In the latest chapter of Zuckerberg’s philanthropic saga, Facebook has lost the right to offer its free mobile internet service in India after the country’s telecoms regulator ruled in favour of net neutrality – agreeing that all sites and apps should be treated equally by internet access providers.

The service in question, its Free Basics programme, offered free access to a set bundle of sites, including Facebook of course. While Zuckerberg felt it was a campaign with an admirable goal – to expand internet access in developing countries, critics said it clearly gave unfair advantage to some internet services over others. And it was a fair concern. Charging charging different rates based on content can be unfair to consumers and the internet services competing for users’ attention.

The service had already faced a frosty reception from firms in India, which felt the internet giant was giving itself an unfair leg-up over local competitors, while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said Facebook’s campaign encouraging people to support the plan was ‘crudely majoritatrian and orchestrated’.

The new regulations from the TRAI ban differential pricing for data services and should make it easier for small businesses to compete with established companies like Facebook. The underlying aim behind the project is a solid one on the surface – opening up opportunity through the internet should be beneficial to everyone. But it certainly needs a rejig to make sure there’s a level playing field for businesses and isn't just operating out of self-interest.

Taking to Facebook (where else?) to offer his opinion on the ruling, Zuckerberg admitted he was ‘disappointed’ with the decision. He said, ‘Everyone in the world should have access to the internet’, which was attempting to achieve. 

Of course, Zuckerberg won’t let this ruling thwart his vision – he remains ‘committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world’. To do so, he might want to rein in the boost Facebook would receive from his project, so the self-interest criticisms hold a little less weight. For now, it’s back to the drawing board with Free Basics and a sigh of relief from Indian start-ups and net neutrality proponents – at least for the time being.

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