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TRAI bans zero-rating; Facebook asserts commitment to India

The Indian regulator TRAI has outlawed differential pricing for data after a national debate which saw zero-rating become a hot-button issue.

Facebook’s Free Basics service was at the centre of the furore, as it provides free access to certain web content selected by Facebook in a breach of net neutrality principles. The service became something of a rallying point in the debate, inspiring both fervent support and fierce opposition.

Net neutrality campaigners welcomed TRAI’s decision, although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was “disappointed” by the ruling, and noted that it would not deter the social media firm from its aim of “connecting India” to “help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities”.

However, while TRAI’s ruling does not specifically name Facebook or any other company, the decision does mean that Facebook’s strategy in India can no longer continue in its current form. The ruling also affects market leader Bharti Airtel’s sponsored Airtel Zero offering.

The text of TRAI’s ruling reads: “Taking into account responses in the consultation, relevant international experience, expert opinion, research studies and all other inputs, the authority has concluded that a clear rule should be formulated – the practice of offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content, is to be prohibited.”

The regulator was upfront about its reasoning, arguing its case based on its philosophy that a provider which offers data services for end user consumption is not the sole controller of the internet infrastructure – indeed, it will likely depend on numerous other networks.

Therefore, a service provider should not be granted the authority to pick and choose how it prices data that it relies on others to process, as this would threaten the fundamental principles of how internet architecture. As TRAI’s ruling puts it, “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.”

Part of Facebook’s internet.org initiative, Free Basics provides zero-rated access to selected services, including the parent firm’s social network. Zuckerberg claims that the initiative has already connected 19 million people across 38 countries.

In a statement on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote “everyone in the world should have access to the internet. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. That mission continues, and so does our commitment to India.”

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