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India just about accuses Facebook of faking Free Basics fandom

Regulator minded to ignore 'crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll'

India's argument with Facebook rages on, with the nation's Telecoms Regulatory Authority (TRAI) sending The Social NetworkTM a stinging letter in which it accuses the company of astro-turfing* a campaign in support of its Free Basics service.

A quick recap: Free Basics is Facebook's curated collection of web sites it deems useful to those in the developing world. The company works with telcos to make those sites available with “zero rating” so that viewing them doesn't count against subscribers' download caps. Facebook argues that access to information is priceless for those in poverty. Others contend that Free Basics is a land grab that erodes net neutrality in worrying ways and is an odd form of charity seeing as it funnels users into Facebook's ad-slinging maw. TRAI thinks Free Basics is not the best example of net neutrality going around, so has banned it.

Faced with those charges, Facebook set up a facility allowing Free Basics users to let TRAI know that they love the service by sending it an email.

TRAI's taken issue with that campaign and has also taken the step of releasing the letter (PDF) in which it did so.

The correspondence is strongly-worded, accusing Facebook of failing to pass on the four questions in the regulator's consultation paper and also blocking access to TRAI's designated email for feedback on Free Basics. The mechanism Facebook did offer allowed Free Basics subscribers to send a form letter to TRAI. Facebook set up a proxy mechanism of sorts, by including “ By clicking Send Mail, you agree to let Facebook send your name and this email to the TRAI.”

The regulator therefore labels Facebook's actions “a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll” rather than a genuine consultation following India's standard procedures for such matters.

The letter winds up by saying TRAI therefore thinks the emails orchestrated by Facebook do not represent Indians' real views and saying the regulator will ignore them.

Facebook's response, on Facebook, admits it did not initially send the full text of the regulator's four consultative questions, but used some of it in an email and in the form letter provided to Free Basics users. The company also points out that it was possible to edit the form letter, and that many respondents did, so the TRAI should be satisfied that its questions have been addressed in a decently consultative fashion.

India, South and Central Asia public policy director Ankhi Das also alleges that it was TRAI, not Facebook, that shut access to the designated email address for feedback.

This kind of “but you said”, “no you didn't” is rarely a good way to solve a dispute. The deeper issue here is that Free Basics is both opaque and demonstrably beneficial to Facebook. The opacity comes from the unknown procedure for inclusion in the service, the benefit to Facebook comes from Free Basics acclimating Indians to a walled subset of the internet.

Facebook hasn't given a inch when confronted with arguments against Free Basics. TRAI appears to have similarly steely resolve.

Argualbly caught in the middle is Indian prime minister Narendra Modhi, who last year twice met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and lauded his efforts to connect the world. ®

*PR talk for faking grass roots activism

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