Facebook's plan to provide limited Internet services for free in India has run into a roadblock, with the country's top Internet regulatory body requesting its local partner to temporarily suspend the program.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asked Reliance Communications to cease providing Facebook's Free Basics program to its customers until further notice, the Times of India reported on Wednesday.
Free Basics, part of Facebook's Internet.org initiative to bring underprivileged citizens of developing countries online, provides certain free web-based services to subscribers of Reliance — its telecom partner in India. However, it has become controversial in the South Asian nation — the social-media giant's largest user base after the U.S. — where critics say it violates net neutrality, the principle that prevents Internet providers from favoring particular websites or services.
"The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content," a senior government official told the Times. "Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen."
Facebook, which has consistently insisted that Free Basics is a purely philanthropic initiative, encountered even more backlash this week for asking its Indian users to send TRAI a message of support for the program and conducting a widespread advertising campaign across the country's newspapers, television and even billboards.