Social media giant Facebook has started an aggressive campaign in India to gather public support for its free internet platform ‘Free Basics.’
“Free Basics by Facebook is a first step to connecting one billion Indians to jobs, education, and opportunities online, and ultimately a better future. But Free Basics is at risk of being banned, slowing progress towards digital equality in India,” said Facebook in its advertisement around Free Basics.
The Free Basics service, which has been in the midst of net neutrality debate, offers free access to a set of basic websites and services with the objective of introducing internet to the people.
When contacted, a Facebook spokesperson said, “This campaign gives people the opportunity to support digital equality in India. It lets people speak in support of the one billion people in India who remain unconnected, and lets them participate in the public debate that is being held by the TRAI on differential pricing for data services. And it gives them the opportunity to support Free Basics.”
Facebook, whose users include top leaders of the world including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said that in a recent representative poll 86% of Indians supported Free Basics by Facebook and the idea that everyone deserves access to free basic internet services.
Besides online campaign to send e-mail to regulator TRAI, Facebook continued with full page advertisements in leading newspapers. Its advertisement was also seen at public places which also shares a toll-free number where people can give miss call to register their support for Free Basics.
Reliance Communications customers were able to access Free Basics service, which is in form of mobile application, to open some websites without paying any charges. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has asked RCom to keep the service in abeyance till there is a decision on its consultation process around differential pricing of data by operators is sorted out. The last date for public comments on TRAI’s paper is December 30.
“As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of free basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance Communications spokesperson said. The regulator has received close to 5.7 lakh comments out which over 5.5 lakh comments are through Facebook’s campaign.
“I think it’s important for our country to notice what platform as powerful as Facebook can do to influence policy making in India to serve their own purpose. According to me, the campaign is disingenuous and misleading,” Savetheinternet.in volunteer Nikhil Pahwa said.
A committee set up by Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in July had recommended against Free Basics, formerly known as Internet.Org, saying that its users could have free access for a few websites, and Facebook’s role as gatekeeper in determining what websites were on that list was seen as violating Net neutrality.
Facebook has denied interpretation as “gatekeeper” and instead called Free Basics a “gateway to Internet”.
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