Facebook's attempt to provide free access to a selection of websites in developing countries was dealt a blow today when India's telecom regulator banned arrangements that charge different amounts for access to different parts of the Internet. The move effectively prevents "zero-rating" schemes in which certain Web services count against data caps while others do not.
Facebook is partnering with mobile operators in various countries to offer "Free Basics," saying that the app provides "access to basic websites for free—like news, job postings, health and education information, and communication tools like Facebook." Any developer can try to get a website included, but Facebook imposes restrictions, including one that prevents high-bandwidth services like VoIP, video, and file transfers. In addition to Facebook, Free Basics includes AccuWeather, BBC News, Dictionary.com, ESPN, and other sites.
Critics say Free Basics violates net neutrality principles by prioritizing certain content, making it less likely that people will use websites not included in the app. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had temporarily banned Free Basics and today followed up with a new rule that prevents service providers from charging "discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content." A discriminatory tariff under this rule includes free data applied only to certain websites.