Facebook faces losing battle on Free Basics

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After intense and long lobbying by both sides, it looks like Telecom Regulatory Authority India’s (Trai) recommendations on differential pricing for data services or Net neutrality may weigh in favour of internet users, who want a non-discriminatory access to internet.

The sector regulator had come out with a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services two months back to invite views from different stakeholders. It was to come out with its recommendations on it by Sunday, but has failed to do so.

Sources, who have been picking up signals on the telecom watchdogs’ view on the issue, believe the wind was clearly blowing against social network company Facebook’s Free Basics and other schemes like it that breach the principles of digital democracy.

“The signals that we are getting is that Free Basics will not be allowed. From what we are hearing, it appears that they (telcos) may be allowed to offer free service but may not be allowed to offer advantage or differently treat internet users or internet companies,” said the source, who did not want to be named.

Internet activists, start-ups and even Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi have put their might behind saving the neutrality of the internet.

Last week, over 500 founders of Indian start-ups dashed off a signed letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in support of Net neutrality.

Among the several comments included in the letter, one of them was that of Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, who said; “This is our chance to not give digital independence that we have to some corporate agenda.

While free internet is definitely a necessary cause, it should be free internet and not a poor version, sub set of internet as we have. Digital India and Start-up India wouldn’t be successful if we discriminate among start-ups. Let every start-up and app made by Indian get equal chance to be successful. Let there be no elite club, free internet, unbiased internet, equal internet and neutral internet for India”.

On Sunday, Gandhi scion also took up the cause; “Like millions of Indian, I am earnestly hoping to see a Trai report and the Modi government’s commitment in favour of an open internet in its entirety where there is no ambiguity in regard to difference in pricing or VOIP”.

Sajai Singh, partner at a Bangalore-based law firm of J Sagar Associates, said the current environment was conducive for the ban of Free Basics.

“The government seems pretty clear that schemes like Free Basics would not be allowed and it is a bit late to lobby for changing its view,” he said.

Nikhil Pahwa, publisher and founder of digital news portal MediaNama and one of the pioneers of Savetheinterent, believes a policy distorting the current form of internet would adversely impact the government’s Start-up India and Digital India programmes.

“We have said that differential pricing should not be allowed. There is a wide acceptance that such schemes (Free Basics or zero rating) by the telcos should not permitted and that they should go. It (differential pricing) is not good for the digital environment. It is not good for Start-up India and Digital India to have operators as gate keepers (of Internet),” he said.

He was, however, wary that operators may go to the court if the Trai were to come out with recommendations supporting net neutrality.

“They (telecom operators) could go to the courts. Operators in the US have done that. I will not put it beyond them. It (Trai’s decision on differential pricing for data services) has already been delayed,” he said.

Rajan S Mathews – director general, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), ruled out any such eventuality unless the “commercial rights” of the operators were infringed upon.

“We would only approach the court after looking at the final form of the regulation (on differential pricing). To tell you the truth, we don’t like to go to court unless there is infringement of our commercial rights or some sort of a thing like this. It is too early to decide. It is a matter we are not even considering at the moment,” said the head of GSM players’ representative body.

Mathews said India and US cannot be compared as their regulations, policies and laws were different.

“You can’t equate India to the US. Federal Communications Commission (FCC of US) has a different set of regulations and separate laws. Net neutrality is still being debated globally. Trai would only be coming out with recommendations. The final decision will be taken by the (union telecom) minister and union cabinet, which makes it a different ball game. It relates to policy making and courts don’t intervene in policy matters,” he said.

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