Free Basics hits TRAI wall

TRAI chief says a large percentage of the 18.27 lakh respondents supported Facebook’s initiative without replying to the queries posed

New Delhi: Facebook’s aggressive Free Basics campaign backfired yesterday with the telecom watchdog TRAI asking respondents to its ‘Net Neutrality’ consultation paper to comment on specific issues, rather than following a template provided by the social media giant.

Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. File pic
Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg. File pic

TRAI, which extended the deadline for submission of comments till January 7 amid an intensified campaign for and against Free Basics, said a large percentage of the record number of 18.27 lakh responses have been only about supporting the specific Facebook product without answering the larger issue of ‘differential pricing’ concerning Net Neutrality.

Free Basics, which Facebook is promoting with double-page newspaper advertisements for days as also through TV, billboards and online forums, is being seen in many quarters as being against the basic principles of Net Neutrality. The telecom watchdog, which has already ordered Free Basics to be put on hold in India, is now likely to finalise views on the issue of Net Neutrality by January-end.

TRAI chairperson R S Sharma said that a record 18.27 lakh responses have been received so far, of which a large percentage are about supporting a specific product called Free Basics. Indicating that the whole consultation process could have been hijacked, Sharma said, “It is like we have asked Question X and they have given answer to Question Y.”

He said the authority has received 8.9 lakh responses supporting Free Basics wherein the respondents have just given their mobile number whereas 5.44 lakh comments were received through Facebook mail.

“... so about 14.34 lakh are such comments. Now the problem for this is that we had asked for response to the specific question of differential pricing... instead we have got responses on supporting Free Basics. Now how does supporting Free Basics help in answering the questions... it has become difficult for us,” Sharma said.

He further said one approach that could have been taken is to just ignore these responses but as people have taken time out to respond, therefore ignoring the comments is not fair. “... that was one of the reasons why we extended the deadline because we thought just ignoring this will not be appropriate because this is the record number of responses which we have got,” he said.

18.27 lakh
No of responses TRAI has received regarding Facebook’s Free Basics initiative

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