Equal Internet

India's internet regulator just called Facebook's Free Basics campaign 'crude' and 'dangerous'

TRAI said the social network had tried to turn the policy consultation paper into a 'majoritarian' opinion poll.

Facebook has made more than its fair share of mistakes in attempting to introduce its Free Basics platform in India, as a top official admitted to Scroll in December. Now things have got worse. In a letter to the social networking behemoth, India's telecom regulator has criticised Facebook's attempt to respond to consultative policy exercise into what the government body called a "crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll".

The letter, dated January 18 and addressed to Facebook's Direct of Public Policy in India, turned up on Twitter on Tuesday evening and showed up on an official URL of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. In it, the regulator expressed "deep misgivings" about the manner in which Facebook had attempted to respond to TRAI's consultation process on telecom policy that would have impacted Free Basics, an initiative from the social media giant that offers a limited version of internet to people for free while violating net neutrality principles.

Majoritarian and orchestrated

"Your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll," the letter from the regulator said. "Equally of concern is your self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using your platform."

The regulator found reason to criticise Facebook primarily on its campaign responding to those who have criticised Free Basics. Initially introduced as Internet.org early in 2015, Facebook was forced to rejig its plan to give away a limited version of internet for free after criticism that it violated net neutrality and essentially offered a poor internet for poor people, which also allowed Facebook to pick and choose which services would be permitted.

Free Basics campaign

The company returned, renaming the product to Free Basics and insisted that it was an open platform that allowed anyone to come on board, but internet activists still fought back saying it would distort the market and violate net neutrality.

In response, Facebook unveiled a massive marketing campaign, buying full-page ads in newspapers and space on billboards, to convince people that Free Basics was not malicious. Further, the social networking giant also prompted users on its platform to send a message to the TRAI, which had issued a call for public consultation, supporting Free Basics.

What Facebook did wrong

This is where things started to get even worse for Facebook.

First TRAI wrote back saying the consultation paper was not about one specific product, such as Free Basics, but about the policy on differential pricing altogether. TRAI rejected the 14 lakh messages sent by people from Facebook's platform, forcing the social media company to draft new responses while the regulator extended its deadline.

TRAI also asked Facebook to get back to all the people who had initially written in in support of Free Basics, to ensure they knew that they were writing to support a particular policy on differential pricing, not broadly supporting a Facebook product. TRAI's letter to Facebook claims that the social media company did not explain whether it had contacted people about this, forcing the regulator to infer that it hadn't done so.

Next, TRAI pointed out that Facebook did not inform it, for up to 25 days, that no email could be delivered to the designated email for receiving responses on the consultation paper, which it later complained about.

Wholly misplaced

Then, the regulator also complained about Facebook's insistence that the 14 lakh emails that were earlier sent should still be considered appropriate responses, saying this is "wholly misplaced". Bringing up the differences in responses, TRAI reminded Facebook that its earlier template does not address the questions in the consultation paper.

This is where it brought up the issue of Facebook treating the entire process like a majoritarian opinon poll and added:

"Neither the spirit nor the letter of a consultative process warrants such an interpretation which, if accepted, has dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India."

The regulator finally brought up the fact that Facebook's email didn't explicitly authorise it to speak on behalf of all the people who used its template, since it didn't ask for consent, and instead only agreed to let Facebook send their name and email address to TRAI.

"Needless to say," the regulator added, "at no point of time does this mean we will not take into account any relevant user... as part of the consultation process."

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.