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This article was published on January 20, 2016

India slams Facebook over its misleading campaign to save Free Basics

India slams Facebook over its misleading campaign to save Free Basics

Facebook has been fighting tooth and nail to continue running Free Basics in India, where the country’s regulatory authorities are mulling policies concerning net neutrality and differential pricing for data services.

The social network has been campaigning to garner support for its zero-rating service that allows people access to certain sites. It also has been attempting to convince the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that Free Basics should be allowed in the country — but the agency isn’t impressed with the company’s tactics.

In a letter to Facebook from TRAI released on Monday (PDF), the regulator called out the company for misleading users with its Save Free Basics campaign, which was launched shortly after the regulator ordered the service to be temporarily blocked last month.

TRAI explained that the automated responses it collected from users didn’t answer the questions set out in the agency’s consultation paper on differential pricing. The letter reads:

It is crucial to underline that your continued assertion that the initial template responses sent by users through Facebook in support of ‘digital equality’ and ‘Free Basics,’ are appropriate responses to the consultation paper, is wholly misplaced.

The regulator clearly wasn’t happy about the manner in which Facebook attempted to rally users to support its service.

Your urging has the flavour of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.

…of concern is your 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 authorized by your users to speak on behalf of them collectively. No disclosure in the act of sending a message to TRAI using your platform to this effect has been issued to users.

According to TRAI, Facebook’s method of reducing the scope of the public consultation on differential pricing for all data services to address only Free Basics could have “dangerous ramifications for policy making in India.”

Facebook said that it did request follow-up responses from its users and that 1.4 million Indians submitted revised comments that answered TRAI’s questions.

Facebook is overplaying its hand in its efforts to gain a foothold for Free Basics in India, when it should actively look into ways in which it can achieve its mission of bringing people online without violating principles of net neutrality.

For its part, TRAI is being as fair as possible. It ended its letter to Facebook saying that this does not mean it will not take into account any relevant response from the comments submitted by the social network on behalf of its users.

But TRAI is clearly not interested in Facebook’s games of semantics. It’s time for the company to learn the rules and start playing by the book if it wants to have a hand in bringing more Indians online.

➤ TRAI to Facebook (PDF) [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India]