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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."

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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