The ongoing battle between Facebook and TRAI over Free Basics has taken an ugly turn. In a set of letters released by TRAI, the regulator slammed the social media giant of turning a public engagement exercise into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll . Also Read - Meta adds new features in Facebook, Instagram for women's safety in IndiaAlso Read - Facebook to now allow more cryptocurrency ads than before; here's why
TRAI join advisor K V Sebastian sent a scathing letter to Facebook, which was made public yesterday. The regulator asked Facebook to confirm if TRAI s reply to people who had come out in support of Free Basics was properly conveyed to them. While Facebook had responded earlier confirming that it had conveyed the message, TRAI was not convinced the users were shown the complete message or in the manner TRAI had requested. Also Read - WhatsApp users on iPhone will soon able to Undo Status, suggests report
In light of the tangential nature of the responses by the users to the questions asked, the communication of such text was vital to demonstrating and ensuring that those who are responding to TRAI are making informed decisions. The only reasonable inference that can be drawn from your communications in this regard, despite two efforts by TRAI to request you for a clarification, is that the text of TRAI s communication was not in turn conveyed by you to those who had sent responses to TRAI using your platform, the letter stated.
In a letter sent to TRAI, Facebook alleges that the responses it had collated from users in support for Free Basics had not reached the authority. It alleges that someone at TRAI had unsubscribed from Facebook s emails on net neutrality. The authority however showed little sympathy.
If this were indeed the case, TRAI should have been informed immediately for appropriate steps to be taken. In fact, a similar instance of user complaint regarding the non-functioning of an email address during the response period for this Consultation Paper was brought to the notice of TRAI by individual stakeholders and the situation was immediately rectified It is surprising that it took over 25 days for you to inform TRAI of this, the regulator wrote.
TRAI yet again said that nearly 80 percent of the replies submitted by Facebook users in support for Free Basics were in the template format and none of them answered the questions asked about differential pricing. TRAI chairman R S Sharma was also quoted as saying, It is like we have asked Question X and they have given answer to the Question Y. TRAI says that it will take into consideration all the responses that are relevant to the process of consultation paper, and that Facebook s assertions that the responses are appropriate to the process are wholly misplaced.
As communicated by Chairman, TRAI in his meeting with Facebook representatives on 14th January 2016 at 3PM, TRAI will take into account all relevant responses that seek to answer the questions raised in the Consultation Paper that you have also made available to TRAI in a pen-drive on the same day.
At the same time, it is crucial to underline that your continued assertion that the initial template responses sent by users through Facebook in support of ‘digital equality’ and ‘Free Basics’, are appropriate responses to the consultation paper, is wholly misplaced, the letter reads.
TRAI again states the questions it has raised in the consultation paper and the responses it has received from Facebook.
As is evident, the above template response does not address the questions raised in the Consultation Paper except one response received on 7th January 2016. You may please note that this particular response addressing the questions raised in the Consultation Paper has already been uploaded on TRAI website along with comments of other stakeholders. However, previous responses do not indicate that these were in reference to TRAI consultation paper. Furthermore, there is no mention of the consultation paper/process at all in the entire response.
As mentioned above, TRAI is not too pleased with how Facebook is lobbying for Free Basics and the way it has turned a public engagement exercise into an orchestrated opinion poll. It says how public consultations help in making informed decisions and fostering a transparent regulatory environment . But slams Facebook in how it has conducted itself during this process.
Your urging has the flavor of reducing this meaningful consultative exercise designed to produce informed decisions in a transparent manner into a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll. 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.
Equally of concern is your self-appointed spokesmanship on behalf of those who have sent responses to TRAI using your platform. It is noticed that you have not been authorized by your users to speak on behalf of them collectively. No disclosure in the act of sending a message to TRAI using your platform to this effect has been issued to users.”
Despite the allegations, TRAI reiterates that it will still take into account all the responses that it feels are relevant, including the comments and counter-comments submitted by Facebook qua a stakeholder, or any user using Facebook as a platform as part of the consultation process.
Facebook has issued a statement in response to TRAI’s letter. It says, “In response to TRAI’s consultation paper, Facebook enabled 11.7 million citizens to file comments in support of the Free Basics program, asking TRAI to allow the program under any rules adopted. TRAI requested that we reach out to these Free Basics supporters to ask them to also answer the specific questions raised by the consultative paper. We are not aware of a similar request having been made to any of the other commenters who did not answer these specific questions. Nevertheless, we attempted to cooperate with their request. While we did not include all of the specific language drafted by TRAI, we did deliver a request for additional information and included in the draft email the exact language from the four specific questions posed in the consultation paper. More than 1.4 million people responded by submitting revised comments that addressed these questions.”