Facebook’s Free Basics internet access app has been controversial since the get-go. Zuckerberg’s initiative to “connect the world” by offering free internet service to selective sites (including Facebook) for people who otherwise would have no internet service at all has been seen by some as “internet colonialism” more than an effort fueled by altruistic values.

On Monday, India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority made its opinion clear; it ruled in favor of Net neutrality and banned Free Basics.

“This is a very important decision for the future of the internet in India,” commented Barbara van Schewick, the director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. The Telecom Regulatory Authority actually quoted her in its decision for its ruling.

“[The TRA decided] ISPs should not pick winners and losers online,” she continued. “The internet is a level playing field where users, not ISPs, decide what they want to do online.”

TRAIFacebook spokesperson Derick Mains disagrees with this characterization of the Free Basics initiative: “Our goal with FreeBasics is to bring more people online with an open, nonexclusive and free platform… 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 opportunity it brings.”

The TRA claims that while differential tariffs such as those set down by Free Basics may make overall internet access more affordable, which then expands and accelerates internet access, differential tariffs also classify subscribers based on the content they want to access.

The regulatory agency believes that this classification “may potentially go against the principle of non-discriminatory tariff” and put small content providers at a disadvantage. It also allows telecom service providers (TSPs) to promote their own websites, apps, or services by offering lower rates to access them.

The TRA also states that the Free Basics idea creates issues that either ignore or exploit confusing variables that occur only in the context of the internet. For example, unlike traditional markets where producers and consumers are distinct, internet users are also content producers.

epa02951514 Indian students try out a low cost $35 (Rs 1,700) tablet computer at its launch in New Delhi, India on 05 October 2011. The tablet computer called 'Aakash' was developed by British-based company Datawind and a team of technologists from IIT Rajasthan.  EPA/STR ** Usable by LA Only **

Another confusing aspect? Every service provider is dependent on other networks, meaning no TSP controls the entire internet infrastructure. If a provider can then occupy “one edge of the internet” and then “charge differentially for data that it does not alone process, [this] could compromise the entire architecture of the internet itself.” In fact, it could make the internet less open, instead of more,┬ámeaning Free Basics may actually creating the opposite of its desired affects.

“In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be (the) equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users’ internet experience,” the TRA continues. “[This] can continue to be risky.”

The TRA believes that letting TSPs charge differential rates on a case-by-case basis “creates substantial social cost.” Therefore, it ruled that offering or charging discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content is prohibited.

“If ISPs really want to get more people online, they can, for example, offer 500 MB of bandwidth to everyone at 2G speeds, but what people do with that bandwidth is their choice,” explained van Schewick.

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