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India rules in favour of net neutrality, blocks Facebook’s Free Basics

Mon 8 Feb 2016

Free Basics protest India

India’s leading telecom regulator, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), has today voted against differential pricing [PDF], ruling with immediate effect that all data prices must be equal, and that companies cannot offer cheaper rates than others for certain content.

The call is a significant blow to Facebook’s Free Basics (previously Internet.org) initiative and Airtel Zero – projects which work to make internet access more accessible by providing a free range of ‘basic’ services such as news, health information, communication and local government updates.

Facebook had been embroiled in a net neutrality argument with TRAI over the past few months, fighting for the group to ‘save Free Basics’ in India, where many citizens live in deprived, rural areas without connectivity. An online petition claimed that the programme would be the ‘first step in connecting 1 billion Indians to the opportunities online, and achieving digital equality in India.’

Today the watchdog confirmed that providers would no longer be able to charge for data based on discriminatory tariffs but instead that pricing must be ‘content agnostic’. It added that fines of Rs. 50,000 – 50 Lakh (approx. £500 – £50,000) would be enforced should the regulations be violated.

According to reports, the TRAI decision was made unanimously and emphasised that customers should not have to be restricted from accessing different internet packages.

In December, the body released a consultation paper asking for collaboration from industry experts about alternatives to differential pricing which would keep the internet free and neutral. Having collected responses, TRAI held an open discussion in New Delhi around the comments and net neutrality, but the debate still did not reach a clear resolution.

TRAI today released the following statement: ‘After careful examination of all the comments and feedback, the Authority has decided that ex ante regulation, rather than a case by case tariff intervention regime, would be more appropriate…’

It did note that for accessing and providing emergency services, or in the case of a public emergency such as flooding, reduced tariffs would be permitted.


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