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TRAI Rules Against Differential Pricing: Won't Allow Facebook's Free Basics

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In a move with far reaching implications, India's telecom regulator has ruled that it will not allow internet service providers to charge differently for different kinds of data.

This means that Facebook's Free Basics app will not be allowed in the country. India also won't allow a practice called zero-rating, where apps pay the data charges instead of their consumers.

Facebook's Free Basics (formerly Internet.org), which provides a stripped down version of a small set of essential services free of data access charges, will now be unavailable for millions of Indians who use smartphones but don't pay for a data connection.

In a press conference, R.S. Sharma, the chairman of TRAI, said: "The authoritative body wants to ensure that all the consumers get access to the internet without any boundaries and restrictions. Apart from emergency circumstances, TRAI will not allow service providers to have data plans which will prefer one website or app over another."

"If any of the Telcos violates this clause they will be charged ₹50,000 rupees per day with maximum fine being ₹50 lakhs per day. All the content on the Internet will come under the regulation. That doesn't include intranet of companies".

Mark Zuckerberg has responded to this in a Facebook post saying "We had launched the Internet.org with an initiative so everyone in the world can have access to the Internet. Indian telecom regulator's decision will limit the Free Basics program and similar programs like others".

TRAI had issued a consultation paper on 9 December 2015 and requested views of all the stakeholders. The initial deadline for submitting the response was 30 December 2015. Later on, the limit was extended twice to 7 January 2016 and then 14 January 2014.

In December and January, Facebook ran a huge campaign asking supporters to support their program Free Basics through various mediums. From Facebook notifications to the billboards on the street the Internet giant reportedly spent ₹300 crore to promote the program. Mark Zuckerberg even wrote an op-ed piece defending Free Basics and saying he couldn't understand why there is opposition to it. He said,"The program provides free Internet to the people who can use it for education, job search, and social communication. Who can be possibly against it?"

There were counter-arguments too, presented by start-up founders and journalists. Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama wrote a blog post on Times of India. Pro net-neutrality website Savetheinternet also wrote a piece called "10 things Facebook won't tell you about free basics". Entrepreneurs like Zomato's Deepinder Goyal and PayTM's Vijay Shekhar openly also said Zero rating programs shouldn't be allowed.

TRAI also wrote a scathing letter to Facebook on 20 January asking the social network to stop being people's representative in a public consultation. They also said that the response received from Facebook were unclear and not in line with the questions asked in the original consultation paper.

The authority said due to the number of responses received and the nature of various responses it took the time to form a response. TRAI has also released an official statement on the website.

TRAI had suspended Facebook's Free Basics program in December pending a decision on differential pricing.

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