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TRAI attacks Facebook’s ‘opinion poll’ Free Basics support campaign

Indian regulator TRAI has lashed out at Facebook’s campaign to protect its Free Basics offering.

Facing a ban on the service, Facebook has encouraged users of Free Basics to send a pre-prepared email to the regulator urging it not to block the initiative. In an open letter, TRAI has claimed that the campaign “has the flavour of reducing this meaningful consultation exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.”

Addressed to Facebook itself, the letter continues: “Equally of concern is your self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using your platform. It is noticed that you have not been authorised by your users to speak on behalf of them collectively.”

It concludes that capitulating to the populist campaign would have “dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India”, noting that Facebook has failed to address specific questions that TRAI has asked concerning Free Basics.

Facebook has countered this claim, stating “we did deliver a request for additional information and included in the draft email the exact language from the four specific questions posed in the consultation paper”. The social media giant also claims that TRAI is receiving and then blocking supportive emails from its user base.

Free Basics has come under fire in India for zero-rating certain Internet content. Differentiated data pricing is a hot-button issue in India as it violates principles of net neutrality, and the regulator has begun a consultation process investigating the matter.

While Facebook began rolling out the service to rural areas in November with its operating partner RCom, TRAI has requested that the operator put the initiative on hold until more information about it has been submitted.

Despite the backlash, Facebook is pressing ahead with its goal of connecting remote Indian villages, and to this end has signed a three-year deal with state-owned BSNL to acquire  bandwidth in 125 rural areas for INR100 million ($1.5 million).

The spectrum will allow Facebook to offer internet access via Wi-Fi hotspots deployed by BSNL’s partner QuadGen. Using the 2.4GHz band, the service will offer speeds of around 2Mb/s, with data packages costing just INR10 ($0.15). A pilot project last year extended this offering to 25 villages in the south and west of the country.

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