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India Bans Facebook's Free Internet Service Because It Violates Net Neutrality

The controversial program offered mobile web access to limited websites and services, sparking criticism among open internet proponents.
Image: Facebook

The world's largest democracy just put a stop Facebook's controversial plan to provide free mobile access to select websites and services in a practice known as zero-rating.

India's telecommunications regulator on Monday passed net neutrality rules that, unlike net neutrality regulations that were passed in the US in 2015, prevent companies from offering or charging "discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content." That's a dagger through the heart of zero-rating, the practice of internet service providers offering select content that doesn't count against subscribers' data caps.


In India, the most visible zero-rated service is Free Basics, a Facebook initiative that offers free mobile access to select websites and services—including Facebook itself. The program proved to be incredibly controversial in the country, with critics taking issue with the idea that some internet is better than no internet and suggesting that Facebook merely wanted to give the next generation of internet users an onramp directly onto the social network.

Facebook, which in recent months had run a large ad campaign in India designed to engender support for Free Basics, said it was disappointed with the new regulations but would continue to work to "give the unconnected an easier path to the internet."

Listen to the Radio Motherboard podcast's story about Free Basics.

Net neutrality proponents quickly hailed the new regulations, with Web We Want, a group that campaigns for affordable access to an internet that's free from censorship, saying the ruling will help "connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web."

"This isn't activism but participatory policymaking," Web We Want's Renata Avila told me via Skype from Germany. Avila then compared the internet to a library, saying services like Free Basics weren't a full public library but a library with only five books, "with someone measuring how much of those books you read."

It's unclear what, if any, ramifications the Indian ruling will have on US internet policy. While the Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality regulations in 2015, several internet service providers have in recent months launched controversial zero-rating programs of their own, including T-Mobile's BingeOn (which lets subscribers watch select streaming video services, including Netflix and Hulu, without eating into their data cap) and Verizon Wireless' FreeBee (which does much the same but isn't limited to streaming video services). The FCC in mid-January met with T-Mobile and Comcast to discuss public concerns about their zero-rating programs, but refused to discuss the meeting in detail beyond saying it was "productive."