Today, TRAI, in a response to Facebook’s letter dated 13th January 2016, gave what can be best described as the most apt response that an arbiter can give. TRAI through this yet to be released letter, called out Facebook’s self-appointed spokesmanship and described Facebook’s methods as “reducing a meaningful and transparent exercise into a crude and orchestrated opinion poll”.
It’s no doubt that you’ve been bombarded with countless articles about Facebook’s FreeBasics platform covering both the pros and the cons but they’ve mostly been written by media agencies like ours. In a way, it feels like the activism part has been left to the a select few who have been quite vocal about the issue with the regulatory body seeming like a mute observer. Not anymore, TRAI’s response to Facebook might just make you look at the agency in a new light. We spotted TRAI's response thanks to a few tweets by Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama.
TRAI repeatedly rebukes Facebook’s way of dealing with the whole consultation process. This is after the fact that TRAI said that the previous 14 lakh responses received by the regulatory agency will not be considered since they did not address any of the questions asked in the original consultation paper. And that Facebook’s insistence about the same was “wholly misplaced”. TRAI further added that “Neither the spirit nor the letter of a consultative process warrants such an interpretation which, if accepted, has dangerous ramifications for policy-making in India”.
In case you are new to this back and forth here’s what’s happened so far:
Since even comedians have demystified the core concepts of net neutrality we’ll assume you’ve seen one of those countless videos or read one of those articles. Here, we’ll only concentrate on the tussle that’s been going on between Zuckerberg and our regulatory authority thus far.
- 1. It started with TRAI’s letter dated 12th January 2016 in which they informed Facebook that TRAI had received 24 lakh responses about regarding FreeBasics of which 5.44 lakh were via ‘@facebookmail.com’ and 13.5 lakh responses were via ‘@supportfreebasics.in’. Both of these responses were the result of Facebook’s PR machinery which involved templatised responses being sent on behalf of all Facebook users who’d clicked through on the FreeBasics page.
TRAI further asked if Facebook had indeed forwarded 4 specific questions which TRAI had requested Facebook to ask the initial wave of responders. This was prompted by the fact that none of the emails that came from these domains showed any signs of being informed of the aforementioned questions.
- 2. Facebook’s then proceeded to address TRAI’s concerns in a response (13th Jan 2016) by Ankhi Das, Director, Public Policy at Facebook. Facebook alleged that TRAI’s email ID (email@example.com) which was to be used for the responses had blocked all responses coming from facebook’s domains(@facebookmail.com and @supportfreebasics.in). Thus, TRAI ended up not receiving any of the responses. What Facebook does not clarify at this point is if they did indeed informed their users about TRAI’s 4 specific questions. The response that Facebook says could not be delivered to TRAI was indeed another templatised that Facebook had authored on behalf of their users.
The Good part - TRAI’s response
Here’s the actual response.
- 3. TRAI calls Facebook out on not explicitly elaborating if Facebook has communicated the 4 questions to their users. Calling Facebook’s attempts at resorting to tangential responses a confirmation of fact that Facebook did not inform their users about these questions.
Further, TRAI says that it took Facebook 25 days to inform TRAI that emails from Facebook’s domains had indeed been blocked. During this very period, a similar instance of blocking was brought to TRAI’s attention and the issue was immediately rectified but Facebook chose to wait till the very end of the consultation period to inform TRAI of the same.
TRAI then assures Facebook that in order to respect the democratic process, they will indeed take into consideration all the relevant responses – that answer the aforementioned questions asked by TRAI – submitted by Facebook during a meeting on the 14th of January 2016. TRAI again admonishes Facebook’s templatised response, saying that it does not in any way address the 4 questions TRAI had asked and there is no mention of TRAI’s consultation paper anywhere in the response.
TRAI then proceeds to school Facebook about the process of Public Consultations wherein inputs from industry members and stakeholders are what allow a regulatory body to make informed decisions and a templatised response was against this very principle.
It then describes Facebook’s process as a crude and orchestrated opinion poll.
It further adds that appending a one line authorisation text at the bottom of user emails does not give Facebook any consent to speak on behalf of their users.
Finally, TRAI again reiterates that they will consider all relevant responses submitted to them to honour the democratic consultation process.
The story will move forward into its next phase when TRAI finally holds the differential pricing discussion on the 21st. Stay tuned.