Facebook’s Free Basics program in India, which it claims would help bring millions of Indians connect to the Internet on mobile, has hit rough waters with the Indian telecom regulator. Despite a multimillion-dollar campaign that included double spread ads in national dailies, television spots and hoardings, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has questioned the legitimacy of Facebook’s claim of 11 million Indians supporting Free Basics.
The reason: The regulator couldn’t actually contact any of them, it says.
TRAI had last month invited comments on its paper on “Differential Pricing of Data Services,” which included zero-rated services as well as services like Facebook’s Free Basics. In order to garner support, Facebook had started prompting its users to show their support for Free Basics by sending a template email to TRAI. Facebook even let users give a missed call to a number that sent the email to TRAI on their behalf. (The practice of “giving a missed call” — calling a number and quickly hanging up after the line connects — is a common marketing tool in India.)
The auto-generated emails, according to TRAI, did not answer any of the four questions asked and merely gave reasons why they supported Free Basics. Not satisfied with the responses, TRAI sought to contact some of the responders, but those emails bounced back.
TRAI also has access to the responders’ phone numbers, but it says contacting them via text or phone call is Facebook’s responsibility since the responders came from its platform.
On Jan. 1, TRAI wrote to Facebook telling it to ask all those who responded to answer specific questions and pointed them to TRAI’s consultation paper. Facebook responded to TRAI on Jan. 6 informing the regulator that they had contacted its users about TRAI’s requirements, but it added that it felt the original responses (which were drafted by Facebook on behalf of its users) addressed the questions and it did not have any email address on record for those who gave missed calls. It the letter, Facebook claimed 11 million people had sent emails to TRAI.
On Jan. 7, TRAI wrote another letter conveying its disappointment. The letter questioned Facebook’s methods, saying it could have instead sent those who participated via missed calls a text message with the link to the consultation paper.
TRAI also noted it had received only 544,000 emails from the “facebookmail.com” domain and another 1.35 million emails from “@supportfreebasics.in,” the latter coming from the missed-call campaign and had only a mobile phone number associated with it.
The regulator also asked Facebook to provide details whether it had communicated its message to its users as well as details of how and when it had done so. That deadline passed with no response from Facebook, according to a press release issued by TRAI.