For more than a month, Facebook has been trying to convince Indian regulators to lift a ban on its Free Basics program but recent developments indicate the social media giant isn't having much success.
Launched alongside telecom operator Reliance Communications, Free Basics was designed to bring more Indians online by offering Reliance customers complimentary access to a range of Internet sites. It was first unveiled last year under the name Internet.org as part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's goal of universal digital access, especially for the 30 percent of Indians living below the poverty line.
But it's come under fire from net neutrality advocates and cast doubt on the social media giant's strategy in emerging markets (EMs). The program is currently pending approval from regulators who are concerned about carriers charging different prices for digital content.
The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Free Basics content won't incur data costs but other sites will, angering activists who argue that all Internet content should be treated equally. With explosive mobile penetration, India is Facebook's biggest market after the U.S., making such a ban especially significant.
A stinging letter from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) last week has fanned the flames further. Earlier this month, officials consulted Facebook on the topic of data pricing for different websites but the firm's response was apparently less than satisfactory.
Addressed to Facebook India's public policy director Ankhi Das, TRAI accused the company of using the consultation as a chance to shamelessly promote Free Basics, saying its replies had "the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll."
In response, Das said Facebook did its best to cooperate with TRAI's 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."