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As India considers net neutrality, Facebook mounts a lobbying campaign

After India's telecom regulator asked a local company to temporarily stop Facebook's Free Basics service amid questions about whether it violates net neutrality, the social media site enlisted its users in a campaign that yielded nearly 2 million responses, the regulator said.

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    Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India on December 30, 2015. After India's telecom regulator ordered the service be put on hold as it mulls regulations on net neutrality, Facebook mounted a lobbying campaign, with users sending nearly than 2 million responses -- sometimes unwittingly -- in support of the service, the regulator said.
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Facebook’s Free Basics service is intended to provide stripped-down Internet capabilities for free to people in rural and poor communities across the world.

But the social media giant has long been dogged by questions about whether its service, which was previously known as Internet.org, violates net neutrality – the idea that users shouldn’t be directed to particular sites or blocked from accessing others.

In India, which is weighing comprehensive regulation on net neutrality, the debate has intensified after the country’s communications regulator asked a local telecom company to shut down the service temporarily as it considers whether it violates the concept by offering users access to only a select group of websites.

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In response, Facebook launched a lobbying campaign last month encouraging its users to write to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which oversees the country’s Internet policy, urging the service be preserved.

As of Jan. 7, the deadline for accepting comments, the regulator said it had received nearly two million comments from accounts affiliated with the site, including the domain names “@supportfreebasics.in” and “@facebookmail”

But many of these comments, the regulator said in a statement, are “basically template responses and the content are identical in nature.”

While they contained individual users’ mobile numbers, they appeared to repeat Facebook’s own talking points about the service instead of addressing the regulators’ questions about “differential pricing,” the practice of charging different amounts to users for the same Internet service.

Some respondents using Facebook Mail addresses appeared to indicate that Facebook had unwitting gotten users to commit their names to support the services without their knowledge.

“I do not support this, it is a Scam by Facebook!” wrote a user named Abhay Bhatia. Another user, identified as Girjia Sankar, wrote last month, “please do not get confused by any attempt to harm Net Neutrality done by Facebook…I know Basic [I]nternet is everyone’s right to get BUT not by harming the Basic Principles of Net Neutrality!”

Currently, Free Basics – which is operated by local telecom companies in countries around the world – offers access to a small number of websites, including the social network, Wikipedia, BBC News, Dictionary.com, Bing Search, and local news sites. Critics say the service essentially creates a “walled garden” of access for users by directing them to particular sites.

Facebook has strongly denied that the service violates net neutrality, describing it as a gateway to full Internet access. The company says that half of the people who have used the service – which is operated by local telecom companies in countries across the world – have moved to paid Internet within 30 days.

“Who could possibly be against this?” Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg wrote last month in a column in the Times of India.

TRAI said it had also received many responses addressing the questions it had posed in its paper, including about the practice of “zero rating” or allowing users to download or stream unlimited amounts of content from certain services that would not be counted against the data limit imposed by an Internet provider. Such services – including plans for offer unlimited video streaming introduced in the US by T-Mobile, AT&T, and Comcast, are currently being debated by the US Federal Communications Commission, which sent letters to the companies last month asking for more information.

Previously, the commission’s chairman had described them as “highly innovative and highly competitive.”

But elsewhere – including Japan, Norway, Chile, the Netherlands, Iceland, Finland, and Latvia – the practice of zero rating has been banned, according to a group of students from the Law and Technology Society at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, in a response to the Indian regulator.

The concern with zero rating models is that it would put control back in the hands of telecom companies offering services such as Free Basics, rather than giving users the right to choose their service and data speed, the students wrote.

While other industries, such as airlines and hotels, use differential pricing, they added, “the idea of imposition of price discrimination insofar as the world of [the] Internet is concerned, raises eyebrows and is perceived as antithetical to the fundamental rationale of openness and equality of Internet [service].”

In its statement, TRAI said it has asked for additional information from Facebook on differential pricing issues, not on Free Basics or any other specific product.

For Facebook, the stakes for preserving Free Basics are particularly high in India, the world’s third-largest Internet market, behind China – where it is blocked – and the US – where paid Internet service is the norm.

Over the past year, the company has mounted a large scale marketing effort to promote the service, spending Rs 300 crore ($65 million) on ads promoting its service, particularly in print media, Live Mint reports.

In his column in the Times last month, Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook had responded to “legitimate concerns” about the program in the past, but sought to paint the program as purely altruistic, noting that it didn’t make money via ads, as Facebook’s site does.

“Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic Internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people,” he wrote. The company hasn’t responded directly to the regulator’s statement.

Some remain skeptical, with Indian venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy describing the company’s efforts as “imperialism and the East India Company all over again,” carried out under the guise of “digital equality.”

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