PMO irate with Facebook, sets up panel on neutrality
04 February 2016
The Prime Minister's Office is displeased with the way Facebook has reacted to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) consultation paper on differential pricing of data and feels that the government's final position on the net neutrality issue should reflect its commitment to free and fair and democratic access to the internet, a report today said.
The Economic Times cited sources as saying that a high-powered committee headed by communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and comprising Jitendra Singh, minister of state for the PMO, and science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan will next meet after Trai submits its recommendations on differential pricing of data tariffs. The recommendations are expected to be made public any day.
The PMO-constituted panel is keeping a close watch on the next steps that Facebook will take to pitch its Free Basics platform.
The company says Free Basics will allow millions of Indians, especially in rural areas, access the web for free, but critics say it will only allow access to select sites and therefore is against the concept of net neutrality.
The panel has already met twice on the subject, with the last meeting held on 15 January.
"In the last meeting, it was clearly discussed that the PMO is of the view that the government must not allow any platform, no matter how popular, to monopolise any information system in the country as it can have far-reaching social, political and economic ramifications," one of the people aware of the discussions said.
"If a public platform is allowed to do so in any manner, it can hold significant power to sway and shape public opinion too," this person told ET, adding that the panel has discussed the option of the government providing some amount of mobile internet data free to first-time users and paying for free data packs along the lines of LPG subsidy using the direct benefit transfer mechanism.
The view from the government's highest quarters comes at a time the government has come under attack from Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who has accused it of delaying its policy stand on net neutrality and warned against the Digital India programme ending up as a "surrogate for the interests of big corporations".
The government feels the issue of net neutrality - a concept which guarantees free and equal access to the Internet - is critical to the success of the ambitious Digital India programme, which is a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and involves creating digital highways to empower citizens digitally across the remotest parts of the country.
Facebook has been engaged in a war of words with Trai over responses made through the social networks' platform to a consultation paper on differential pricing of data services - released in December - which had triggered a controversy over net neutrality (See: Trai, Facebook in war of words over Free Basics campaign).
What appears to have gone wrong for Facebook is the manner in which it aggressively responded to the telecom regulator's consultation process.
On 9 December, Facebook started a mass campaign on its platform asking users to support Free Basics and urged them to email Trai declaring their support of "digital equality".
Free Basics was sought to be conflated with digital equality. Facebook also ran advertorials in newspapers and on TV backing Free Basics, which it pitched as a solution to connect the unconnected billions.
The social media giant was warned by the telecom regulator to not try and turn a 'consultation process' into an opinion poll.
It had called Facebook's Save Free Basics campaign a "crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll". It also pulled up Facebook for the responses, which the regulator said didn't address any of the questions posed in the consultation paper.
On 1 January, Trai asked the company to alert its users to send revised responses to the questions on the consultation paper, as a vote for Free Basics did not hold up as a valid response.