Trai, Facebook in war of words over Free Basics campaign

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has written a strongly-worded letter to Facebook, slamming the social media giant for the way it ran a campaign to save its zero-rating platform Free Basics.

The service was banned in India after Trai issued a paper questioning the validity of differential pricing for some content services by internet service providers (ISPs). Facebook has tied up with Reliance Communications for Free Basics in India.

Trai's letter says that Facebook has been silent on whether it had conveyed the full text of the regulator's message to users who had supported Free Basics. Trai has specifically requested Facebook to ensure that Free Basics supporters answer the four questions raised in the paper, rather than espouse support for just one platform.

Trai's letter reads, ''In light of the tangential natures of the responses by the users to the questions asked, the communication of the text was vital to demonstrating and ensuring that those who are responding to Trai are making informed decisions.''

The letter adds that despite two specific requests around the same issue, it was reasonable to infer that Facebook had not communicated the full text of Trai's message to the users.

Facebook has also issued a statement regarding Trai's concern over delivering the message to its users who extended their support to Free Basics and said that over 1.4 million Indians responded with revised comments to address Trai's questions and that the company had cooperated with the regulator's request.

A Facebook spokesperson said, ''Trai requested that we reach out to these Free Basics supporters to ask them to also answer the specific questions raised by the consultative paper. We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions. Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their 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.''

Trai has also accused Facebook of reducing a ''meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed and transparent decisions into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.''

Trai goes on to add that neither the spirit nor the letter of the paper warrants such an interpretation as done by Facebook. The regulator says that if such interpretations are accepted, then it would ''have dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India.''

Trai has also slammed Facebook over what it calls 'self-appointed' spokesmanship on behalf of its users, who have sent a response and adds that Facebook did not get sufficient consent from users when sending out that automated response.

In its defence, Facebook has claimed that ''someone with access to designated Trai email account appears to have blocked receipt of all emails from Facebook to that Trai account.''

Trai in its response asks why Facebook did not a formal complaint, if they felt that their email id had been blocked.

The regulator also rejects Facebook's assertion that the initial template responses sent by users in support of 'digital equality' and 'Free Basics' are appropriate answers for its paper. Trai's letter also notes that Facebook has ignored the fact that the paper is on 'Differential pricing of content/services by ISPs' in general, and not about one particular service.

However Trai has said that this letter should not be taken to mean that it will reject ''any relevant responses'', which might have come from any user who used Facebook as a platform. Trai says it will also keep in mind the comments Facebook has submitted as a stakeholder in the whole debate. (See: Trai respondents confuse net neutrality with Free Basics).