India’s communications regulator issued an opinion Monday that is likely to block a controversial Facebook-administered program for delivering free web services to poor customers.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India said that the companies should not be allowed to offer free access to the Internet that is limited to specific websites or services.
That concept — known as zero-rating — is the lynchpin of Free Basics, a suite of free tools produced by Facebook that is offered in some countries through partnerships with local wireless providers.
Critics of the program say that it steers users toward certain services and away from others, potentially violating the concept of net neutrality — the notion that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. In Facebook’s case, critics worry that Free Basics would allow the social networking giant to have an outsize influence over how users in many countries experience the web for the first time.
The Indian regulator seemed to agree, saying in the document issued Monday that “allowing service providers to define the nature of access” would be the same as letting them “shape” their users’ experience on the web. This is especially true, it said, because so many Indians lack Internet access.
The ruling comes not long after the Indian regulator ordered Reliance Communications, Facebook's partner in India, to stop offering Free Basics while the program was reviewed.
Facebook has for months insisted that its program is not meant to violate net neutrality. On Monday, it said it was “disappointed” with the opinion.
"Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “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.”
The decision is a defeat for the California-based social network, which had lobbied extensively for the program in India. The company asked users to write to the regulator to express their support for the Free Basics program and CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year when the leader was visiting Silicon Valley.
Zuckerberg also wrote an op-ed in the Times of India defending the program and urging readers to “choose facts over false claims" in the debate.
The skirmish over Free Basics is also part of a larger, global debate about whether zero-rating violates net neutrality. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has said it is examining offerings from Comcast, AT&T and T-Mobile that could be classified as zero-rating.