Indian Regulator Temporarily Suspends Facebook’s Free Basics

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Free Basics, a service by Facebook initiative Internet.org, is having a rough week in India. First, an email campaign by the social media network was criticized for being heavy-handed and misleading. Now Reliance Communications, one of Facebook’s partners, has agreed to temporarily halt Free Basics on its network after receiving a request from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

The Times of India first reported the news, which Reliance Communications confirmed in a statement. “As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Freebasics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” a Reliance representative said in an email.

This is a big deal because the TRAI is set to hold a hearing on net neutrality next month before issuing a final decision that may force Free Basics to undergo major revisions to continue operating in India.

A Facebook spokesperson said “We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.” TechCrunch has contacted the TRAI for comment.

Information about Free Basics is still available on Reliance’s site.  The company, India’s fourth-largest telecom operator with about 110 million users as of June, made Free Basics available to all its subscribers last month.

India is just one of 36 countries where Free Basics has launched, but it is an important proving ground for Facebook as its second-largest market after the U.S., with 130 million users.

The idea behind Free Basics, an initiative of Facebook’s Internet.org, sounds altruistic. The program offers users on its telecom partners in emerging economies access to services without charging data fees. These include news sites, weather reports, and health information, but also Facebook products like the social network and Facebook Messenger. Critics argue, however, that Free Basics violates the tenets of net neutrality by working with Internet service providers to direct traffic to a handful of sites and services.

Garnering support from TRAI was at the crux of controversial Facebook’s “Save Free Basics” campaign last week. Users were presented with an email form as soon as they logged into the service, asking them to send a pre-written message of support for Free Basics to TRAI. The campaign was only meant to be displayed to Indian users, but the company sent notifications to some people in the U.S. on Monday in what it says was an error.

Facebook has not given up trying to increase enthusiasm for Free Basics in India before the TRAI hearing. The company has also started taking the unusual step of purchasing billboards and television and newspaper advertisements in favor of the program.

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