The consultation process set in motion by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on the > issue of differential pricing of cellular data has set off a full-scale and no-holds-barred war of words between the authority and Facebook. The spat came into the public domain last week when >TRAI released its e-mail exchanges with the social networking giant . The telecom regulator is clearly concerned about the unabashed enthusiasm demonstrated by Facebook to utilise — indeed, exploit — the consultation process to drum up support for its Free Basics product. TRAI was scathing in its criticism of Facebook’s high-intensity lobbying exercise. The regulator minced no words, and accused Facebook of converting its consultation process into a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll’’. Also, TRAI is convinced that the campaign by Facebook to defend its free Internet platform “is wholly misplaced” as the consultation paper is only on differential pricing for data services and not on any particular product or service. The social networking giant has been collating responses from users of its platform, and forwarding them to TRAI. Somewhere in this process, Facebook felt that somebody with access to the TRAI e-mail account had blocked the receipt of its e-mails. That accusation was enough to provoke a confrontation with TRAI. More than anything else, the stand-off between the two has brought the focus on the efficacy of the consultation process in an environment where private enterprise is increasingly gaining greater clout. Also, it raises serious questions on the lobbying practices followed to shape outcomes in a consultation process, and the potential impact on policy formulations.
In the Information Age, where communication enterprises are not just controlling but also redefining the way we interact, it is imprudent and even risky to let them have a free run in setting the policy agenda. The right to do business does not automatically give them the freedom to misuse their platforms to hijack policy initiatives by swaying public opinion. By means of its action, Facebook clearly has walked into the ‘conflict of interest’ argument. In the wake of rising support for net neutrality, > Facebook launched a multi-million dollar campaign late last year to support Free Basics , a re-branded version of its internet.org. How tenable is it for an interested enterprise like Facebook to play a facilitating role in the consultation process initiated by TRAI? The ‘template response’ that it has procured from its users naturally has no articulation on the points made by TRAI. Moreover, Facebook cannot arrogate to itself the right to represent users just because they use its platform. The TRAI-Facebook face-off, unfortunately, has deflected the focus from the real issue: what kind of Internet access will suit a country like India with over a billion people? A solution must focus on providing maximum benefit to the poor.