The TRAI letter to Facebook on the issue of Free Basics has demonstrated that our institutions have enough discretion to stall veiled attempts in shaping public policy
Asserting itself, TRAI in a strongly worded letter on 19th January, criticised Facebook calling its Free Basics campaign a “crude” attempt. It accused the social networking site of turning the consultation over differential pricing of data services into an “orchestrated opinion poll” to push its Free Basics. The company had run an aggressive campaign with full page newspaper ads. Reportedly, it spent more than Rs 300 crores. Free Basics allows users to access certain sites without data charges. However, there is nothing free about it. In addition, Facebook reworded the TRAI’s questions in its consultation paper into template responses which reduced users’ choice. The regulator had sought the views of stakeholders on differential pricing on data services being offered by operators. The responses sent by Facebook did not adequately cover the issues that TRAI was bringing out. The regulator pointed out that such interpretations as done by Facebook would have dangerous ramifications for policy making in India.
The number of responses received by TRAI is also bone of contention. TRAI said that it received only 1.89 million responses. Facebook on its part, stated in an email on 13th January that no mails could be delivered to the TRAI id after 17th December, 2015 and contested that it had sent more than 11 million responses. TRAI promptly replied as to why Facebook had to wait for 25 days before bringing this to notice. There was a certain degree of coercion and a lack of transparency in the manner that Facebook took the consent from its subscribers. The regulator had asked Facebook to tell its users to specifically answer queries raised in the paper. The responses sent by Facebook were not relevant to the questions posed by the regulator and instead it was a veiled attempt for its ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign. However, the regulator has stated that it will consider all the relevant responses sent by Facebook.
This stand off between the regulator and Facebook has come at a time when the social media giant is trying to vigorously establish its footprint in India. With this approach, TRAI has effectively demonstrated that it will not stand for being bullied by a multi national corporation trying to have its way. Whether Facebook backs off, or escalates this further remains to be seen. On 21st January, TRAI is holding an open house on differential pricing and net neutrality involving all stakeholders. It will be interesting to watch the development as it will have a major impact on the internet services.
Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar
Featured image: Uniqeulycat(Cathy) Smith licensed from Creativecommons.org