Facebook’s quest to connect globally was put on hold in India after the Indian government banned its Free Basics program for limiting Internet access rather than expanding it.
Citing how the service provides access to only a limited collection of Internet services, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled that the service was in direct violation of international net neutrality standards.
This ban is the first of its kind for the program since its launch in 2013 as part of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative to increase Internet access around the world.
“While we’re disappointed with [this] decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world,” Zuckerberg said in a statement released on Facebook.
But the idea that this is about actually connecting more countries to the Internet is a misconception, according to Mark Raymond, Wick Carey Assistant Professor of International Security at the University of Oklahoma.
“Almost every country on earth has Internet access. Even North Korea. So it’s wrong to say that this is a matter of getting more countries online. Rather, the challenges are more often either about government repression or censorship, or about the costs of modern telecommunications services,” he said.
Free Basics began operating in India in February 2015 and quickly became the subject of a national discussion over whether or not the service violated one of the most important principles governing unrestricted Internet access: net neutrality.
By preventing Internet service providers from restricting access to content or services available to Internet users, net neutrality works to ensure that discrimination and monopolization is kept to a minimum and not letting large corporations or the wealthy pay for faster Internet speed than the general public.
And while Free Basics markets itself as a free Internet service that expands Internet access to millions of people in more than 37 countries, that access is limited to Facebook and services that sign-on with the program. Not the entire Internet.
“Whether or not you think the kind of model Facebook was attempting to deliver in India is a problem ultimately depends on whether you value consumer freedom or simply improving the material and economic conditions for citizens,” Raymond said.
Although the ruling presents a major obstacle for Free Basics in India, Zuckerberg and Facebook have made clear their intentions to fight the ban.
“Everyone in the world should have access to the Internet. Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. That mission continues, and so does our commitment to India,” Zuckerberg said.
But for the time being, India appears to have decided that maintaining strong net neutrality outweighs the services Free Basics is offering.