Telecom regulator Trai on Monday prohibited discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content. The move is a big blow to Facebook’s highly-controversial ‘Free Basics’ platform and Airtel’s zero-rated platform ‘Airtel Zero’.
This means that all content on the internet needs to be available at the same data price. A violation will lead to a fine of Rs. 50,000 per day, the regulator said.
“This (ban) will disallow any program or project which works on the architecture of differential pricing,” said the regulator, stressing that “content agnostic” access to the internet is the operating principle, though it added that data charges can be dropped during public emergencies like flooding.
The authority also prevents service providers from entering into any arrangement or contract that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services. The regulations come into effect immediately. The authority may review the regulations after a period of two years.
Addressing the media, TRAI Chairman Ram Sewak Sharma said that any such plans that are there already in effect will be allowed to expire. He, however, said that differential prices could be offered “in case of emergency.” But service providers will need to inform TRAI of any such emergency free data services within seven days.
The regulator further said that “no service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person… that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content.”
Those who have taken on Free Basics include founders of some of the most successful internet companies in India, as well as faculty at prestigious academic institutions like the IITS.
They argue that if the Facebook scheme is allowed, it would confer huge gate-keeping powers on the online giant, allowing it to decide what content users access – and that content would be either its own or that of its partners.