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India’s Blow Against Facebook Sets Up a Grand Experiment in Net Neutrality

Regulators in India have struck down Facebook’s scheme that makes it free to access only some parts of the Internet .

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get more people in poor countries online is a danger to the principles that have made the Internet so successful.

So says the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI. On Monday it banned (PDF) the “Free Basics” scheme in which Facebook and mobile networks let people access certain online service—including Facebook and Wikipedia—without incurring the usual data charges.

Facebook had already been forced to rename and redesign its program after a wave of protests in India and other countries claiming that it breached the principle of net neutrality, the idea that Internet service providers must not favor particular types of data or service over others. The ruling from India’s regulator affirms the core of those complaints. Making data for certain services free is anticompetitive and gives companies undue control over the information and services poor people can access, it says:

“Allowing price differentiation based on the type of content being accessed on the internet, would militate against the very basis on which the internet has developed and transformed the way we connect with one another.”

The regulator did offer a clear path for Facebook to continue its campaign to get more people online, however. Providing free access to the entire Internet rather than just some parts of it is fine by the TRAI. Facebook released a statement today pledging to “continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

The effect of India’s new rule may be felt beyond the country’s 1.3 billion people, most of whom are not online. Very few countries have passed laws to ban differential pricing for Internet services. Chile and the Netherlands have, but the U.S. and the European Union as a whole have not, for example.

India’s new regulatory regime might encourage other countries struggling to get more people online to follow suit, particularly if it seems to help widen access or have other benefits such as helping domestic Internet companies compete with U.S. giants such as Facebook.

(Source: TRAI)

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