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Facebook's Regulatory Battle Over Free Basics in India Is Getting Feisty

Facebook's battle with Indian regulators is quickly turning into a public he said, she said debacle.


Facebook’s battle with Indian regulators is turning into a public he said, she said debate as the two sides continue to fight over Facebook’s Free Basics app, the social network’s effort to bring free Internet services — including Facebook — to emerging markets.

A new letter published online Tuesday by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India showcases a number of accusations between the two sides in which the only thing that seems clear is that the entire situation is pretty murky.

The tl;dr version: Facebook is trying to recruit users to support its Free Basics app, which is under fire from Indian regulators. These regulators argue that Facebook isn’t sharing all the necessary info with said users in order to ensure they know what they’re arguing for. And Facebook claims regulators are blocking emails of support from its user base.

The longer, more detailed version: TRAI is in the process of collecting public opinion on how the country should regulate zero-rating services like Free Basics. It claims that Facebook, which has been encouraging its users in India to support Free Basics by emailing TRAI from their Facebook accounts, failed to give users the appropriate consultation paper it released and asked people to respond to. In other words, TRAI claims Facebook isn’t sharing the relevant material with people its recruiting to fight for its app.

On the other side, Facebook is accusing TRAI of “unsubscribing” to emails from Facebook users trying to support Free Basics, thus blocking their effort to support Facebook’s app.

This entire ordeal is complicated; Tuesday’s letter and accusations highlight just how frustrated both sides are. Facebook has been trying to bring Free Basics to parts of the world where Internet access is too expensive for people to pay for themselves. The Free Basics app gives people a selection of free Internet services, paid for by mobile carriers, in the hope that they’ll enjoy the Internet so much they’ll become paying customers. Facebook is one of the services offered for free.

India has fought Facebook on this plan from the beginning, claiming that Free Basics violates the concept of net neutrality by making some services free and not others. TRAI has gone so far as to ban Free Basics in India. Facebook has spent the past few months encouraging its users in India to send letters to TRAI in support of Free Basics ahead of any regulatory decisions that might keep Facebook’s app out of the country. Facebook penned the digital letters and asked that users sign and send them directly from their Facebook accounts.

Which brings us back to Tuesday’s exchange. Facebook says that 16 million users sent messages via Facebook to TRAI in support of Free Basics; TRAI claims to have received only 1.8 million of these messages, hence the accusation of blocking email. TRAI does not directly dispute Facebook’s claim. Instead, TRAI points out how long it took Facebook to notice and then flag the email issue (25 days), saying that it fixed a similar issue for other users as soon as the complaints were brought forward.

TRAI added that the emails sent by Facebook users are essentially useless anyway since Facebook wrote the boilerplate response. “Equally of concern is your self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using your platform,” the letter reads.

TRAI is asking people to respond to four specific questions that were generated from its consultation paper. Facebook’s boilerplate memo addresses none of them, TRAI claims.

TRAI has previously asked Facebook to go back to users who sent the boilerplate memo and share with them the consultation paper and specific questions. Facebook claims it did. Here’s what a Facebook spokesperson shared with Re/code on Tuesday:

We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions. Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their request. While we did not include all of the specific language drafted by TRAI, 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. More than 1.4 million Indians responded by submitting revised comments that addressed these questions.

TRAI doesn’t believe Facebook actually shared the material with users, claiming that sharing the consultation paper was “vital to demonstrating and ensuring that those who are responding to TRAI are making informed decisions.”

So each side believes the other is playing dirty.

This whole debacle and its outcome are incredibly important for Facebook’s future. India is home to the second-largest Facebook user population outside the United States, and Free Basics is a way to get people in emerging markets online, which also means on Facebook. Much of the company’s future growth will likely stem from this app.

If it’s banned in India, there’s a chance that other important countries (Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria) could follow suit. For Facebook, there’s a lot at stake.

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