For much of the last year now, Facebook has been under fire in India for its “Free Basics” zero rating campaign, which exempts Facebook-approved content from carrier usage caps, purportedly to the benefit of the nation’s poor. Critics however have argued that Facebook’s just trying to corner developing ad markets under the banner of altruism, and giving one company so much control over what’s effectively a walled garden sets a horrible precedent for a truly open Internet. Indian regulator TRAI has agreed so far, arguing that what Facebook is doing is effectively glorified collusion, and it’s demanding that Facebook shut the program down until a public conversation about net neutrality can be had.
Like any good giant international company, Facebook’s response to this call for open and honest dialogue has been to launch a mammoth media and lobbying blitz across India. The campaign has included buying entire newspaper spreads in which Mark Zuckerberg professes to be super worried about the country’s farmers, to some subtle, local advertising.
But as we noted a few weeks ago, Facebook also engaged in some pretty shifty behavior to try and trick people into spamming Indian regulators in favor of Facebook’s Free Basics plan. Numerous people complained that the Facebook app tricked them into signing and sending a complaint to TRAI, after the regulator issued a call for public feedback on the country’s nascent net neutrality rules:
Being Facebook-generated form letters, TRAI points out that none of these responses appear to answer any of the questions the regulators put forth in its original call for feedback. Facebook’s response, attached to the filing, is to claim that the company actually helped generate 11 million supporters of Free Basics, yet it mysteriously has no idea where these missing 9.1 million responses disappeared to. In other words, Facebook not only tried to trick its users into spamming the government, but it appears it may have lied about the overall volume of support Free Basics had.
Combined with Zuckerberg’s claims that opponents of Free Basics are extremists that hate the poor, Facebook’s making an excellent case for its critics who say that creating a walled garden version of the Internet in which Facebook is king is a very bad idea. A better idea? As numerousfolks have suggested, how about putting all of this money being spent on Free basics, lobbying, spamming and marketing into actually updating India’s lagging broadband infrastructure?