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A simple guide to Facebook’s complicated problem in India

Indian regulators have come down hard against Facebook this week, effectively banning the social network from offering a controversial service known as Free Basics.

You may be hearing a lot about Free Basics in the news right now. What is it, and why is this fight halfway around the world so important to Facebook? Here’s all you need to get caught up.

What is Free Basics?

Free Basics is, first and foremost, an app. People in developing countries rely on Free Basics to access certain digital services, such as health, schooling and financial information, as well as job leads. For these folks, Free Basics is great because it does exactly what it sounds like: grants people crucial, life-enhancing information at virtually zero cost to them. All they need is a cellphone with a data plan. And Free Basics doesn’t even count against your data cap, so you can stretch your monthly data even further.

If it’s so great, then why does India want to ban it?

While Free Basics helps connect people to the Web, some people argue that it comes with a huge trade-off for society. This trade-off has to do with how Free Basics works.

Free Basics is “free” because Facebook has struck business deals with the telecom networks over which the app’s data travels. That’s how the telecom companies can exempt Free Basics from their data caps.

At the same time, the information and services that you can find on Free Basics come from nonprofits, private companies and other organizations that have also struck a partnership with Facebook. To participate in Free Basics, these groups have to agree to play by Facebook’s rules — what it calls the Free Basics participation guidelines.

I don’t get it. So, why is India against it? 

The biggest problem, as the Indian government has said, is that companies who aren’t a part of the program could get left behind while others who’ve hitched their wagon to Facebook get promoted to Indian consumers — for free. Free is a very compelling price, and Facebook itself is poised to gain a lot of traction in developing countries where demand for basic digital services is high.

Credit: The Washington Post

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