Facebook stumbles in France and India: What’s going on?

India's regulatory authorities clamped down on Facebook, as France's data privacy agency claimed the company's data-tracking practices breach French privacy law, in a sign governments will pressure profit-making companies to keep the Internet free.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/File
Motorists ride past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India, Dec. 30, 2015. India introduced rules on February 8, 2016 to prevent Internet service providers from having different pricing policies for accessing different parts of the Web, in a setback to Facebook Inc's plan to roll out a pared-back free Internet service for the Facebook-using masses.

Facebook called it "digital equality." India called it "the East India Company all over again."

Facebook's tagline, "It's free and always will be," encapsulates for some the ideal of a free Internet, but governments are increasingly differing with the social network over the meaning of the word "free." 

Facebook received at least two opportunities this week to see what doesn't work, as regulators in France and India nixed the social network's ongoing plans as threats to privacy and a free Internet.

India's telecommunications regulator banned Facebook's Free Basics internet service on Monday, saying its offerings – designed to provide some online access to poor and rural areas – were limited to organizations that signed on with the service, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The decision also impacted a similar service by India's largest telecommunications company.

"The Authority has largely been guided by the principles of Net Neutrality seeking to ensure that consumers get unhindered and non-discriminatory access to the Internet," the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India wrote in a statement. "These regulations intend to make data tariffs for access to the Internet to be content-agnostic." 

Facebook has the option of challenging this decision in India's courts but is more likely to work with India's regulators to find a system they can all live with, Jeremy Wagstaff and Himank Sharma reported for Reuters. Free Basics survived only two months in Egypt before the government failed to renew its permit in early January, the Independent reported.

"This is a major setback for Facebook," Naveen Menon, lead analyst for A.T. Kearney in Singapore, told Reuters. "Not only because India was expected to be such a critical piece of the overall Internet.org success story, but more so because it has potential dangerous knock-on effects for the universal access initiative in other markets."

Also on Monday, France's authority for data protection ruled that Facebook violates the privacy rights of Facebook users and non-users alike. 

The French authority gave Facebook three months to stop profiling users for targeted advertising without permission, David Meyers wrote for Forbes. This would be a serious blow to Facebook, which received 96.5 percent of its 2015 revenue from ads. 

Facebook's stalking policy for non-users is also under fire, as the company currently attaches cookies to the browsers of anyone who visits a public Facebook page or private site with comments enabled by Facebook. Once again, France's actions have a precedent – Belgium, in this case – that could spell future trouble throughout Europe. 

From its inception, Facebook marketed directly to its users, beginning with an exclusive circle of college students and then ballooning outward as demand expanded across the globe. The regulatory demands issued Monday could indicate a shift of government concern as Facebook's explosive growth – it boasts over one billion active users – catches up with its business side. 

"Facebook is re-thinking what it's doing, coming up with better plans," Karthik Naralasetty, the Indian creator of the Free Basics start-up Socialblood, told Reuters. "Communications will have to improve. They have to get the buy-in of different governments before they go into those countries."

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