Facebook’s Internet.org stumbles in India

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Facebook’s attempt to provide free access to some Internet services has hit a roadblock: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has told the company’s wireless partner, Reliance Communications, to halt its support of the program.

At issue is the idea that providing free access to some services but not others violates the principles of net neutrality, which basically asserts that Internet providers shouldn’t be able to charge more or less for access to specific websites.

Those concerns have surrounded the Free Basics service affected by this request ever since the Internet.org initiative started rolling it out earlier this year. It even lost a number of high-profile partners worried about its potential ramifications.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg responded to those concerns in a post on his public Facebook page. “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity,” he said in a status update, “it is always better to have some access than none at all.”

But those concerns weren’t limited to India. Later, a chorus of activists from Latin America led the Electronic Frontier Foundation to ask if Internet.org leaves people who rely on the service without legitimate access to the Internet.

Here’s the crux of the activists’ and the EFF’s argument against Internet.org:

It is true that Facebook is not the only property made available through Internet.org. The free bundle includes open resources such as the excellent Wikipedia. But the problem runs deeper than simply which sites to which poor users should have subsidized access. It lies in the very concept that Facebook and its corporate partners, or governments, should be able to privilege one service or site above another. Despite the good intentions of Facebook and the handful of allied companies, Internet.org effectively leaves its users without a real Internet in the region.

Now it seems that the Indian government has similar questions about the effect Internet.org might have on the free Internet. As an unidentified source told the Times of India when it first reported on TRAI’s request for a halt on the service:

“The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen.”

It’s not clear how long the Indian government will take to examine the issue. But at least one thing is clear — the battle to decide whether it’s better to have free access to a limited Internet, or costly access to a free Internet, is far from over.

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