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India Officially Rejects Facebook's Free Internet Offering

TRAI has spoken.

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Indian regulators have officially put the kibosh on Facebook’s efforts to bring free Internet services to many of the country’s citizens through its app, Free Basics.

TRAI, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, on Monday issued new rules titled “The Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations,” a ban on mobile carriers offering certain Internet services for a discounted price.

In other words, Indian regulators are upholding the concept of net neutrality, or the idea that everything on the Internet should be treated equally. Facebook’s Free Basics app made some Internet services, including Facebook, free for users, but did not include everything on the Internet.

“Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in a statement provided to Re/code. “While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

TRAI’s decision was a long time coming. Regulators started collecting public comments on Free Basics and other zero-rating services last year. Then things got tricky. Facebook used its service to encourage its Indian users to respond to TRAI with a boilerplate email. TRAI countered with accusations that Facebook wasn’t providing these users with all the material needed to make an informed decision, and somewhere along the way, a bunch of these emails were never delivered. (Facebook accused TRAI of blocking these emails.)

Don’t expect Facebook to simply lie down. Free Basics has been an important pet project for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who visited India this year and also hosted the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public conversation at Facebook’s headquarters.

Zuckerberg’s argument for Free Basics has stayed relatively consistent: Some Internet, especially for poor people who can’t afford data plans, is better than no Internet. And Facebook argues that its app does not violate net neutrality because any Internet service provider can sign up. (This requires providers to jump through some hoops, though.)

India is an important country for Facebook. It is home to the second-largest Facebook population outside the United States, and given China’s ban on Facebook, it’s the largest country in the world at Facebook’s disposal. As the company continues to grow and seek new revenue, emerging markets like India are becoming increasingly important.

Update: Zuckerberg addressed TRAI’s decision in a Facebook post Monday morning, saying that he was “disappointed” and that “everyone in the world should have access to the internet.” He also reiterated that Facebook won’t be shutting things down as a result of the new rules.

“I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world. has many initiatives, and we will keep working until everyone has access to the internet,” he wrote.

Here’s the full post:

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