Free Basics: India blocks Facebook's web service

Telecom regulator rules that Free Basics would violate net neutrality

Facebook

India's telecoms regulator blocked Facebook's Free Basics internet service today, saying the scheme violates net neutrality.

Campaigners had complained that Free Basics went against net neutrality laws by providing access to a select few websites and online services, with the debate gathering much publicity in India.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) today released the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, saying: "These Regulations intend to make data tariffs for access to the internet to be content agnostic.

"The Authority has largely been guided by the principles of net neutrality seeking to ensure that consumers get unhindered and non-discriminatory access to the internet."

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The regulations state that internet service providers cannot charge "discriminatory tariffs" based on content, and TRAI warned that companies breaking this rule will face "financial disincentives". 

Last month, 30 non-profit companies and net neutrality advocates in India wrote an open letter to Facebook, after TRAI paused the roll out of Free Basics.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially launched the project to provide an "on ramp to the internet" for people in emerging markets, giving them access to things such as financial services and health information.

But the scheme has come consistently under fire from digital rights groups, with Facebook accused of violating net neutrality laws with a two-tiered internet service.

28/01/2016: How are people really using Facebook's Internet.org initiative?

New light has been shed on how some users have been utilising Facebook's Free Basics intiative, with many reportedly using it to cut data costs, rather than just as a way to get online.

Despite being intended as a way for users in developing countries to access basic online services such as Wikipedia and weather information, Buzzfeed reports that some customers pay for cellular data in addition to using Free Basics.

"The majority of those customers also used paid data the month they used Free Basics," Antonia Graham, Panama-based mobile operator Digicel's head of group public relations, told the site. "They use Free Basics when they have no credit."

Similarly, almost all customers of Iraqi telecommunication firm Korek are already online, according to a manager at the company, who said: "They want Free Basics as an addition to plans they already have. These are people who are already online."

Despite this, exact figures on how Free Basics is being used, or even how many people are using it across the 37 countries in which it is available, have not been released by Facebook.

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07/01/2016: Facebook's Internet.org initiative comes under fire

Facebook has come under fire for alleged violations of net neutrality laws by its Free Basics initiative in India.

An open letter signed by 30 non-profit companies and net neutrality advocates levels allegations against the company, concerning the Free Basics scheme to provide free internet being stalled by the Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

TRAI has paused the roll out of Facebook's initiative to examine its adherence to existing net neutrality laws and protections.

But Zuckerberg, the letter claims, has encouraged users to take action against this ruling, blaming it on a "small, vocal group of critics" who oppose the project. Dubbing Facebook's claims reliant on "straw man arguments", the letter criticises the company's methods.

"You have said that 'connecting the world is one of the greatest challenges of our generation.' We all agree," the letter stated. "We also believe that a connectivity agenda must respect the right of all to equally access, receive, and impart information. 

"For this reason, we are concerned about Facebook's recent attacks on the millions of internet users in India and around the world who have fought, and who continue to fight, for net neutrality."

The letter does also acknowledge many of the things Facebook has done to improve the situation, amending issues relating to things such as security, privacy and transparency.

"As India and other countries determine their net neutrality rules," it continues, "we ask that Facebook meaningfully and respectfully engages with ordinary users, activists, and advocates without engaging in unfounded and divisive attacks."

25/09/2015: Facebook's Internet.org initiative renamed and expanded 

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Facebook's controversial free internet project, Internet.org, has been given a lick of paint in the form of a new name, additional developers and a greater commitment to security going forwards.

Now dubbed Free Basics by Facebook, the scheme was first launched by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2013 with the aim of providing free internet access to residents in various developing countries across the globe. Through the app and website, users gain access to a range of websites such as Google Search, Facebook and Wikipedia free of charge.

More than 1bn people currently have access to the free services across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the company announced in a blog post, with more than 60 additional services now available across 19 countries.

In addition to the new name, the Internet.org Platform launched for developers to create services that integrate with the project's requirements is now live, greatly expanding the number of sites users of the app and website can access.

Vision

Zuckerberg has described the initiative as an "on ramp to the internet" for disadvantaged people, particularly targeting emerging markets. This will give people essential access to financial services, health information and educational opportunities who might ordinarily go without.

"One thing I think it's easy to take for granted is that most people do not have access to the internet," Zuckerberg said. "It's 2.7bn [with internet access] and it's growing slower than you'd imagine.

"If you increase the number of people in emerging markets with internet access, you can create 100m jobs [and bring about a] seven per cent drop in child mortality It's really early, [and] I don't want to say we have all the answers yet, but the early results are promising. We're proving the model can work."

Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung were founding partners of the project but, shortly after the launch, Zuckerberg admitted that it would take a while for Internet.org to generate any revenue.

Guy Rosen, product management director for Internet.org, said: "Over 85 per cent of the world's population live in areas with existing cellular coverage, yet only about 30 per cent of the total population accesses the internet.

"Affordability and awareness are significant barriers to internet adoption for many and today we are introducing the app to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free services."

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Back in March, the project's first solar-powered drone completed its mission after successfully flying over the UK. The unmanned aircraft will be used to beam internet access down to people from the sky.

"Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10 per cent of the world's population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure," said Zuckerberg.

Global innovation

The initiative was first trialled in the Philippines and Paraguay, with the number of people accessing the internet doubling for the latter shortly after it was made available.

It has since launched in Zambia, India, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Columbia, with Zuckerberg announcing plans to launch the service in Europe in the near future. In total, the company hopes to take the project to 100 countries around the world.

"We are working with operators, content partners, and governments from all over the world to address the barriers that prevent people from connecting and joining the knowledge economy," said Markku Makelainen, director of global operator partnerships at Facebook.

In a Facebook Q&A conducted in April, British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson entered the conversation to ask about Internet.org.

"I share your view that it is crucial to connect the two-thirds of the world that don't currently have access to the internet," he said. "What do you think will be the biggest benefits of this?"

In response, the Facebook CEO said that a lack of global internet access is stalling innovation: "When we talk about connecting the world, most people talk about the clear benefits to all the people who will get internet access and don't have it today.

"Those benefits are many: access to education, health information, jobs and so on. Many people estimate that for every 1bn people we connect, we'll raise more than 100 out of poverty. But one thing that we often overlook in this discussion is how everyone who is already connected will benefit from having everyone [else] online."

Net neutrality

Digital rights groups have accused Facebook of violating net neutrality laws in an open letter signed by 67 separate organisations claiming Internet.org will create a two-tiered internet in addition to risking the privacy of its users.

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They claim the approach to providing online access to underprivileged regions will promote some services over others, including the company's own social networking site. In order to use the full internet, disadvantaged users would have to pay for it.

It reads: "Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services."

Speaking to those who had doubts about the project, a Facebook spokeswoman said: "We and our critics share a common vision of helping more people gain access to the broadest possible range of experiences and services on the internet. We are convinced that as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services.

"We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services."

Another open letter, this time signed by 30 non-profits and advocates for net neutrality, made similar claims.

Zuckerberg has expressed his support of net neutrality in the past, writing in a Facebook post: "I support net neutrality because, at its core, it's about preventing discrimination. Net neutrality means we can use the services we want, and innovators can build the services we need.

"Connecting everyone is about preventing discrimination too. More than 4bn people don't have access to the internet and the opportunities it brings. If we connect them, we'll lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. If we want everyone to share the opportunities we have, then it's our responsibility to bring everyone online in a way that respects an inclusive net neutrality."

Other roadblocks

The initiative has encountered a number of problems since it was announced, with Facebook abandoning plans to use satellite-based broadband delivery in June this year. Previously, the company reportedly planned to spend up to $1bn (644m) to build and launch a satellite that would allow places without data infrastructure to access the Internet.org services.

Some security concerns had previously been raised around Internet.org not featuring support for HTTPS, the secure communication protocol. This has been rectified since and, in the latest Free Basics update, services and websites will encrypt information "wherever possible".

HTTPS will now also be supported in the web version as well as the app.

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There is also suspicion about how Facebook and its telco partners might use the data collected by its apps and services, violating its users' privacy with a "lack of transparency" in this area. 

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