Can Universal Connectivity and Net Neutrality Coexist?

By Kelley Chittenden 

Mark Zuckerberg’s plans to “connect the entire world” hit a speed bump the first week of February when Indian regulators blocked Free Basics, his free mobile data program. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued regulations banning differential pricing for data services in order to restrict the ability of mobile phone companies to “shape the users’ Internet experience” by offering free access to certain services. According to The Guardian, the process began in March of 2015 with a consultation paper recommending telecom operators be allowed to charge extra for third-party apps and services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. TRAI sought public comment on twenty questions, which led to a “spirited, pro-net-neutrality campaign” called Save The Internet and 1.1 million responses against differential pricing by late April.

Free Basics offers a text-only mobile version of Facebook, along with various news, health, and other services as a way to introduce the Internet to disadvantaged populations. Because the services are “lightweight” versions of originals, they load quickly and can perform on 2G and 3G networks. Facebook began offering the app last February through a local mobile phone carrier, Reliance Communications, and claims it provided Internet to over nineteen million people who would not have been able to afford it otherwise, Wired reports.

The app was quickly scrutinized in India. Critics believed Facebook’s message felt self-centered or opportunistic and argued that “zero rating” programs, which are sets of apps or sites mobile operators and Internet service providers do not charge for, violate net neutrality. For example, an open letter to Zuckerberg from digital rights groups from thirty-one countries said the app threatens “freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.” World Wide Web Foundation programme manager, Renata Avila, also welcomed the decision of Indian regulators to block the service: “The message is clear: We can’t create a two-tier Internet – one for the haves, and one for the have-nots.” Rejecting Facebook’s offer as a violation of the open nature of the Internet, Nikhil Pahwa’s Save the Internet campaign raged on.

Ironically, Facebook is a proponent of net neutrality in the United States, in which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently dealing with its own net neutrality rules. The net neutrality concept basically stands for the proposition that Internet providers should provide equal access to all content on the web. TRAI essentially ruled that no service can “offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content,” which could unfairly advantage some Internet services over others. Although Facebook insisted Free Basics supports net neutrality in that anyone can use it, Facebook reserved the right to reject partners and disallowed voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) calls, according to The Guardian.

However, Free Basics was not without support. The director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, Rajan Mathews, believes the regulations are a “welfare-reducing measure of high concern” that block less advantaged citizens of India from “harnessing the power of the Internet.” In his view, turning Free Basics down ignores the benefits of price differentiation, which may include improving economic efficiency, increasing broadband, reducing customer costs, and providing essential services. Software engineer Shashank Mehra points out that net neutrality violations are sometimes a market process rather than a “sinister” act, and Boston Globe writer, Hiawatha Bray, sarcastically highlights the fact that Internet advocates saved poor Indians from the “nightmare of free access to Facebook” in the name of fairness. In his view, second-class Internet access has potential to provide marvelous opportunities—“If a poor man cannot afford an Escalade, should he have nothing at all?”

In a Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg himself defends the company against accusations of intent to block or throttle the Internet and declares that offering some free services is useful in extending access to the rest of the world: “[N]et neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.” Can they?