Facebook withdraws Free Basics from India after regulatory debacle

The move comes after India's regulator prohibited Free Basics and similar services

Facebook has withdrawn Free Basics from India, days after the country's telecommunications regulator prohibited the differential pricing of data depending on the content or application that is being accessed.

"Free Basics is no longer available to people in India," a Facebook spokesman wrote Thursday in an email.

The Free Basics service, earlier known as Internet.org, was launched in India in February last year to provide free Internet access to India's poor. The free access was, however, limited at launch to 38 websites, including Facebook and its Messenger service, Bing Search, Dictionary.com, BBC News, Reuters Market Lite for crop and farming information, and local jobs and news sites.

There was concern from civil rights groups that the initiative was creating a "walled garden" that provided access to only a few websites cleared by Facebook to offer their services on Free Basics. Facebook later tried to promote the service as an open platform on which developers could include their services, provided the services and sites met certain criteria, but civil rights groups were skeptical about Facebook being the arbiter.  These groups said the poor should be provided access to the Internet at large and not a few websites.

Some critics also said that the service was not reaching the poor but current Internet users who were using the service to access Facebook and the other services offered for free. A large proportion of India's poor do not have mobile phones, and those who have do not use smartphones.

A spokesman for Reliance Communications, the carrier offering the service, did not comment on the withdrawal of Free Basics in India.

The service was launched in 38 countries as part of Facebook's plan to provide Internet connectivity to millions of poor people. "Connectivity can't just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2014 at the first meeting of Internet.org. "It needs to be something that everyone shares, and an opportunity for everyone."

But the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on Monday prohibited free data services for select content, also called zero-rating. It said it had considered the views of some people that it should evaluate differential pricing schemes on a case-by-case basis, but such an evaluation would have a high regulatory cost and benefit those companies that are well-financed enough to pursue regulatory and legal options.

TRAI had in December expressed concern in a consultation paper that accepting the principle of allowing telecom service providers to subsidize some content could be interpreted as an acceptance of the principle that they can also discriminate against content from some other websites.

The TRAI decision led a Facebook board member Marc Andreessen to make remarks on Wednesday about India's colonial past, which led to a storm of protest on Twitter and other forums. "Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?" The tweet was later deleted.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his page on the social networking site that he found the comments by Andreessen "deeply upsetting, and they do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all." Andreessen later apologized. But the dispute is an indication of how strongly all sides feel about the shutdown of Free Basics in the country.

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