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Facebook gets slammed for spamming India’s telecom regulator

By Itika Sharma Punit

In a strongly worded email on Jan. 18 (pdf), India’s telecom regulator has accused Facebook of running a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll” in an attempt to save its Free Basics service in the country.

Last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had floated a consultation paper (pdf) that would have directly impacted Facebook’s free internet. To garner support for its Free Basics service—which offers free and limited internet access to Reliance Communications subscribers in India—the social media giant began a “Save Free Basics in India” campaign on its platform. Facebook users were prompted to click a “Send Email” button, which would allow the social network to send an email to the regulator in his/her name.

In its recent letter to Facebook’s director of public policy in India, TRAI called this “self-appointed spokesman-ship.” The regulator said it wanted all respondents to read the consultation paper before replying, but Facebook’s campaign allowed them to send feedback without seeing the paper.

“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,” TRAI told Facebook.

This isn’t the first time TRAI has gone after Free Basics in the last one month. The regulator has already asked Reliance Communications to suspend the service till it considers all details.

On Jan. 1, the TRAI chairman RS Sharma had dismissed most of the messages sent from Facebook’s website till then as they did not address specific questions. ”We respect the responses, but they need to be pertinent and need to be meaningful to us. We have given them extra days and appeal to them to frame responses to our questions, giving specific reasons,” Sharma told the Economic Times newspaper. ”They just can’t say they love Free Basics.” Facebook had eventually changed the template.

In a statement today (Jan. 20), a Facebook spokesperson said: “We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions. Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their request.”

“While we did not include all of the specific language drafted by TRAI, we did deliver a request for additional information and included in the draft email the exact language from the four specific questions posed in the consultation paper. More than 1.4 million Indians responded by submitting revised comments that addressed these questions,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, supporters of net neutrality in India are cheering for the government body.