India's Internet activists have scored an epic victory in their battle against Facebook and its attempt to become gatekeeper to the Internet in India.
In the spring of 2015, Indian Internet activists sounded the alarm about "Internet.org," a Facebook venture that had the company bribing mobile carriers to exempt the services it chose from the data-caps imposed on users.
As the protests spread, India's independent telcoms regulator announced a consultation on net neutrality and mobile carriers, which Facebook responded to with a massive charm offensive full of misinformation and FUD, a rebranding effort (they changed the name to "Free Basics"), using its service to generate millions of official comments to the regulator, none of which actually addressed the questions in the consultation. The regulator, infuriated by the avalanche of irrelevant spam, announced that it would ignore any response that didn't address the questions in the consultation paper.
It was an exceptionally cack-handed move by Facebook, whose lack of attention to the fundamentals (consultation responses have to respond to the consultation, dummies), cost it a fortune — and lost it the battle.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has handed down a new rule, called the "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016," which bans offerings like Internet.org and Free Basics.
Though it's a huge upset for a multibillion-dollar multinational that put everything into the effort, it's also somewhat unsurprising. The TRAI consultation asked specific questions about net neutrality, and the only answers to those questions were provided by Facebook's opponents.
The rule applies to telecom operators rather than Facebook, but it would prevent Facebook from partnering with mobile operators to offer apps that don't count against mobile data caps. Operators who violate the rule can be fined. One exception to the rule allows free access to emergency services.
Because most residents of India are not yet connected to the Internet, mobile operators should not be allowed to "shape the users' Internet experience," TRAI wrote. As more people gain Internet access, their usage should be "shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings," the agency said.
The rule doesn't prevent mobile operators from offering free data, as long as it can be used to access any content. "For instance, providing limited free data that enables a user to access the entire Internet is not prohibited," TRAI wrote.
Facebook's free Internet app banned by India's new net neutrality rule
[Jon Brodkin/Ars Technica]
(Image: FSMK's walkathon in support of NetNeutrality, Viggy prabhu, CC-BY-SA)