Zero rating is dead. India's telecom regulator on Monday decided that it wouldn't permit services like Facebook's Free Basics, which offers a limited version of the internet to users for free, because it would "militate against the very basis on which the internet has developed."
In its notification the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said it would prohibit "discriminatory tariffs for data services." Effectively, this means that internet providers will not be allowed to offer certain kinds of internet content – such as just Facebook or Wikipedia – for free, while charging money for other websites or apps. Access to the internet will be equal.
Despite rumours that there would be exemptions in TRAI's order that would favour creators of content, such as the soon-to-be launched Reliance Jio network, the regulator's eventual order only included exemptions in the cases of emergencies. Any provider found to be violating the order would be charged Rs 50,000 for every day it is breaking the law.
Blow to Facebook
The decision comes as a blow to social media behemoth Facebook, which spent thousands of dollars in an advertising campaign attempting to convince Indians and the regulator of the need for its controversial service. Facebook's campaign, in fact, was not just ineffective, it was also called "crude" and "dangerous" by TRAI.The order also comes as a victory for internet activists, who rallied around a cause called SaveTheInternet based on the argument that services like Free Basics went against the principle of net neutrality. This principle is the belief that all traffic on the internet deserves to be treated equally. (For a full explainer on what net neutrality is, read this).
"The SaveTheInternet.in Coalition welcomes the TRAI’s regulation dated 8 February 2016 which is in favour of Net Neutrality, by putting an end to differential pricing services which would have allowed telecom operators to break the Internet and become gate-keepers and toll-collectors," the activists said in a release.
TRAI's decision comes after heated debate over the last year and a half, beginning with the Airtel Zero platform which attempted to offer users some part of the internet for free. Neutrality activists believe that this has the potential to balkanize the web, creating a "poor internet for poor people" while also benefiting those who decide to partner with Facebook.
Proponents of zero rating have argued that it is the best way to bring the unconnected onto the internet, with Facebook's Vice President of Internet.org – the arm of the organisation running Free Basics – telling Scroll.in that the scheme was built to move people to the full internet.
Aside from conspiracies over this being Facebook's attempt to monopolise the internet, the discussions over the last year also included a genuine debate over how to bring people in India online. Zero rating is one of many ways of doing that, and TRAI has made it evident that, while those services are banned, it is not also going to prohibit what is known as "equal rating."
"To strike a balance and in view of the need to bring more users on the internet, this prohibition shall not apply to other forms of tariff differentiation that are entirely independent of content. For instance, providing limited free data that enables a user to access the entire internet is not prohibited."— TRAI
This means that efforts like Mozilla's equal rating, which works with telecom operators in some countries to offer 500 MB of internet for free every month, would be permitted. The difference between these platforms and Facebook's is that it allows users to experience all of the internet, not just those services that Free Basics is working with.
Essentially, while banning zero rating, TRAI has permitted companies to offer a small amount of free internet to users as long as they can access anything online.
Facebook says it chose not to go down that route because it is not the most optimal way for a user to experience the internet for the first time. It claims that limited internet that runs out quickly because of heavy websites may not be useful, an issue addressed by Free Basics tweaking of websites to be as accessible by those with low connectivity as possible.
"Even when it comes to providing internet, we’re open to a variety of models," said Chris Daniels, Vice President of Internet.org. "And there have been other models that have been proposed. What we think is that all of these other models are perfectly valid, and people should go explore with them. We think FreeBasics is a valid model as well, that people should explore. It’s far more proven than the others."
TRAI has ordered all companies to shut down any zero-rated services within six months, giving users a chance to move to other plans in case they had signed up for something like this. It also means Facebook will now have to decide how it wants to go about with its stated, philanthropic aim of bringing the world's unconnected masses online, when its own service – at least in the current form – has been banned.
"Without speculating on what the outcome of this will be, we will continue to try bring people online," Daniels said in December. "India is a very important market, and there are still many many people who are not expecting the benefits of connectivity and we want to bring them online."