Telecom regulator pillories Facebook

Facebook has been lobbying hard for the entry of its Free Basics programme into India. Photo: Reuters

India's telecom regulator has strongly criticised Facebook over its campaign to drum up support for its Free Basics internet plan in India.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said a poll prompting people to support the plan was "crudely majoritarian and orchestrated".

It had earlier asked the mobile network that partnered with Facebook to put its Free Basics offer on hold.

Free Basics lets people access Facebook and some other websites without charge.

In a letter to the social media network, TRAI told Facebook that it had reduced a "meaningful consultative process" to help make informed and transparent decisions into a "crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll" which had "dangerous ramifications for policy making in India".

Equally of concern, said TRAI, was Facebook's "self-appointed spokesmanship" on behalf of those who had sent emails to TRAI using its platform.

It has also accused the social media network of failing to include specific questions raised by the regulator about Free Basics, which meant that users responding to the poll were not making a fully informed decision.

Facebook told Buzzfeed News that it had "attempted" to cooperate with TRAI.

"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," Buzzfeed News quoted the company as saying.

Net Neutrality concerns

Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been lobbying hard for the entry of Free Basics in India, which was temporarily put on hold after critics voiced concern that it would damage net neutrality in the country.

In an appeal in the mass-circulation Times of India, the Facebook founder forcefully defended introducing his Free Basics service as "a set of basic internet services for education, healthcare, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data".

"Who could possibly be against this?" he asked.

But those campaigning to protect net neutrality in India suggest data providers should not favour some online services over others by offering cheaper or faster access.

At least 50 professors of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science also supported the campaign, saying that the Free Basics plan was "a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet".