India Decision Appears to Nix Zero Rating

India has rendered a decision that appears to have the effect of putting the kibosh on Facebook's Free Basics zero rating service of basic broadband functionality to low-income residents there.

The Times of India reported that Telecom regulator Trai said that "no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person... that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content," and that that was a big blow to Facebook's effort and zero rating in general.

Some net neutrality advocates argue that Facebook is providing a lesser service, in essence choosing what Internet poor people would be getting and not necessarily weaning them off it.

Two weeks ago, Facebook attorney and former FCC chair Kevin Martin was making the case for the service at the State of the Net conference in Washington in the face of interest group concerns that people would be stuck in the Facebook program with only a "subset" of the Internet.

Facebook has already rolled it out in 35 countries, though obviously India would have been a huge addition as the world's second most populous country.

He said about half of those users have converted to full subscriptions and that the goal was to get people within a wireless signal to try it cost-free. But it is that other half that doesn't upgrade and remains in the Facebook-selected Internet that worries activists.

Of the suggestion that creates an Internet experience "curated" by Facebook, he pointed out that the Free Basics program has been opened up to other content developers—an initial criticism of the program. Initially it was also called, not Free Basics, which he said also fueled criticism that it was confusing people into thinking it was all of the Internet.

Zero rating lobby group Protect Internet Freedom took aim at opponents of Free Basic who were celebrating India's decision. "To them, zero-rating is 'poor Internet for poor people.' But all they have to offer in return is 'no Internet for poor people.'"

"Today’s decision is a major victory for free speech and for Internet users everywhere, no matter what [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg’s well-paid public relations team might tell you," said Fight for the Future campaign director Even Greer said.

He also said that it would ban T-Mobile's Binge On if it were operating there.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.