The move by Indian regulators to ban “differential tariffs” for data services and in the process effectively end Facebook’s so-called “Free Basics” platform ever taking off in the country may have set a precedent as to how the product will fare in the rest of the developing world.
Analysts say the decision by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) could embolden critics of Free Basics elsewhere to force regulators to follow suit.
Also known as internet.org, the product is currently available in 38 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s part of Facebook’s ambitious project to provide free internet access, albeit in a limited capacity, to the estimated five billion people around the world without online access. Internet.org works by offering mobile users access to a limited number of websites, curated by Facebook, through their carrier that provides the service without them incurring data charges.
For users in Kenya and Tanzania, two of East Africa’s largest economies, internet.org is accessible through Airtel Kenya and Millicom’s Tigo respectively. The platform offers 17 websites that include stripped down versions–or as one user put it, “the internet of the late 1990s”–of the BBC, Facebook and its messenger app and other local apps and sites.
But just like in India, Free Basics has become the subject of intense debate in Africa. Critics say Facebook’s approach is not the solution to connect the unconnected on the continent. It simply confers the profit-driven, US-based company, gate-keeper powers to the next billion users coming online, they say.
“It may be a short free access but it is definitely a long term control of how our people access, consume and use the Internet,” says Yannick Lefang, the Cameroon-born founder of Soko Insight, a Canadian-based consumer research firm focused on Africa. ”Our leaders should understand that while “free” market is good, it’s only good when you can compete on the same playing field.”
Others say allowing internet.org to operate could create a two tiered online experience, where those with money can get full access to the internet while the poor are marginalized to a limited version. For them, the decision by TRAI to bar Free Basics in India could help catalyze a movement on the continent that could arrest such a dichotomy from emerging.
“While we do need to fast track connecting the unconnected, it must be applauded that advocates in India, and many others in these developing markets, are pushing for the conversation of the quality of the internet be considered,” Nanjira Sambuli, the research lead at Nairobi’s the iHub, one of Kenya’s leading tech incubators, told Quartz. “Else, we risk having a connected world, but with tiered access.”
Facebook denies this. In his comments responding to the decision by TRAI, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, pointed out that Free Basics has been able to bring 19 million people online that did not have access to the internet before. And while the company did not specifically address the question of whether it is worried about other regulators following India’s suit, a spokesperson made sure to clarify to Quartz that TRAI’s ban refers to differential pricing and not specifically to Free Basics, implying that the project could return there with some adjustments.
“While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the internet and the opportunities it brings,” she said.
Yet for Lefang, he would like to see regulators on the continent follow the lead of their Indian counterparts and ban internet.org in Africa as well. “Our regulators should review the program and come up with a framework that allows our people to get access to all the internet at an affordable cost,” he said. “Net neutrality is about accessing all the internet not free restricted internet.”
As internet technology and mobile telecoms have evolved rapidly and broken down the old walls between media and distribution, African regulators haven’t always been able to keep up with the changes. For instance, when Netflix rolled out globally in January—including in every country in Africa—Kenya’s regulators threw a fit about some of the content on the site, calling it a threat to national security.
But some progressive and ambitious African governments also see the internet as an opportunity to help accelerate development—Rwanda is the best example of this.
For the moment at least, African regulators where internet.org is operational have yet to institute a similar rethink to India’s. In Tanzania, East Africa’s second largest economy, where internet penetration stands at 5%, the country’s regulator Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), said providing access to the internet is more important right now than concerns over net neutrality.
“An initiative that spurs adoption of data services for Tanzania for now is more beneficial to the market,” said Innocent Mungy, a spokesman for TCRA.