SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  The Facebook and WhatsApp app icons are displayed on an iPhone on February 19, 2014 in San Francisco City. Facebook Inc. announced that it will purchase smartphone-messaging app company WhatsApp Inc. for $19 billion in cash and stock.  (Photo illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Indian Telecom Authority Bans Facebook’s Free Basics Service

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The Free Basics app from Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org is not allowed in India, after a ruling this week by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The ruling follows an intense debate between proponents of the project to improve Internet accessibility for the poor, and opponents who say it violates net neutrality by privileging content.

The TRAI published a white paper on mobile data pricing (PDF) in December as part of a call for public input, and that call was answered by a vigorous debate, which included advocacy groups in India and around the world. The ruling is not specific to Free Basics, but rather determines a lawful relationship between data and content.

“No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content,” is the first conclusion of the TRAI (PDF), which means no “zero rating” plans. The ruling offers exceptions only to emergency services and times of public crisis.

Zuckerberg responded to the ruling with a lengthy Facebook post, admitting his disappointment but reiterating his commitment to extending Internet access to those without it in India. Internet.org has connected over 19 million people in 38 countries, according to Zuckerberg.

While net neutrality has been a contentious topic in many countries, with the FCC defending itself in Federal Court against the United States Telecom Association, for example, India’s carefully calculated position represents the first major ruling specifically against content differentiating data schemes. Critics of the European Union’s Telecoms Single Market regulations, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, say it fails to protect net neutrality by allowing “specialized services” and zero rating.

“This is a major setback for Facebook,” lead analyst Naveen Menon at A.T. Kearney in Singapore told Reuters. “Not only because India was expected to be such a critical piece of the overall Internet.org success story, but more so because it has potential dangerous knock-on effects for the universal access initiative in other markets.”

Conspicuous among those other markets is the US, where, as Wired points out, Verizon is already using zero rating for its video service to combat Netflix and YouTube.

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Chris Burt is a WHIR contributor and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He can be found on Twitter @afakechrisburt.

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