New Delhi: The debate on net neutrality is gaining intensity in India. While Facebook has launched a full-blown media campaign to drum up support for Free Basics, the new name for its internet.org platform, critics have won support from the academia in their opposition to Facebook’s move.

The Free Basics service aims to offer people without the Internet free access to a handful of websites and a range of services through mobile phones. However, net neutrality activists say such a move will violate the core principle that all should have unrestricted access to Internet and it should not be regulated by a company.

On Tuesday, the faculty members of India’s leading institutions of science education Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT)—mainly the computer science and electrical departments—in a statement rejected Facebook’s Free Basics proposal. Signed by 40 professors, it called the proposal “misleading and flawed".

Online campaigns #SavetheInternet and #SayNotoFreeBasics have been gathering steam even as Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece on ‘Free Basics protects net neutrality’ in The Times Of India earlier this week.

Facebook’s Internet.Org vice-president Chris Daniels said that it is open to the scrutiny of the process by any third-party agency like Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) or software industry lobby Nasscom during an ask-me-anything (AMA) session on social networking platform Reddit.

While Facebook has all along said that it supports net neutrality and has positioned Free Basics as a medium to provide free access to basic internet services to a billion people all over the world, following the outrage on social media, telecom regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has put Free Basics on hold asking Reliance Communication, Facebook’s telecommunication partner for the venture, to furnish the detailed terms and conditions of its Free Basics service. The next step will be announced in January 2016.

Facebook, in February, launched Internet.org in India along with Reliance Communications to connect people to the social media network, as well as websites such as Wikipedia, ESPN, BBC, Reuters, ClearTrip, AccuWeather and Dictionary.com among other region-specific health and education services.

The move drew criticism, since it offers free access only to select content, violating net neutrality that holds that telcos should not discriminate online data by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication.

“The first obvious flaw in the proposal is that Facebook assumes control of defining what a ‘basic’ service is," the joint statement by IIT-IIIT faculty members said. “What are the ‘basic’ digital services Indians will access using their own air waves will be decided by a private corporation, and that too one based on foreign soil."

The academia also said using the platform, Facebook would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ apps on its servers, meaning Facebook will be able to access all the user content from these basic apps featured on the platform, which will put privacy of billions of people at stake.

The joint statement said the Free Basics service is not actually free since telecom operators will have to recover the cost of ‘free basic’ apps from the non-free services and it violates one of the core architectural principles of Internet design: net neutrality.

“Compromising net neutrality, an important design principle of the Internet, would invariably lead to deep consequences on people’s freedom to access and use information," said the joint statement, urging Trai to back net neutrality and reject Facebook’s proposal.

Meanwhile, Nasscom is in talks with Facebook, which is lobbying hard to get the apex software body’s support. “As part of our policy submissions, we have detailed consultative sessions with different stakeholders and these discussions will help us to better understand different points of view and take into consideration any inputs that Facebook and Save the Internet and any other interested parties provide before we firm up our response to Trai," said Nasscom in a statement.

“The objective of the call (with Zuckerberg) was to understand perspectives on Free Basics, differential pricing for data services and related issues," it said.

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