Facebook-led group tries to mend fences over free Internet service in India

May 4, 2015, 8:52 PM UTC
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg Hosts Internet.org Summit
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Internet.org summit in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. Zuckerberg said a lack of relevant local language content is the biggest barrier to the 4.4 billion people globally who don't have Internet access. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Udit Kulshrestha — Bloomberg/Getty Images

A Facebook-led group made enemies in India recently by giving away free Internet access as a way to connect people online who can’t afford it. The problem: This free Internet only included Facebook and a small group of others.

On Monday, the group, Internet.org, responded to accusations of favoritism by letting any developer apply to be included in the free service. The organization is hoping that the gesture will quell criticism of the project, particularly by many of India’s top news organizations that had dropped out of the project.

Internet.org, recently launched its app in India, as a way to connect the country’s millions of impoverished citizens who have no Internet access. The app gives people free access on their mobile devices to a limited selection of basic apps and services like news, job search sites, and health information.

In India, Internet.org partnered on the project with mobile carrier Reliance Communications. The company subsidizes the data costs for users in the hope that they sign up for a paid plan in the future.

Soon after its launch in India, however, several content partners including Cleartrip and Newshunt dropped out over concerns about net neutrality, the idea of treating all Internet traffic equally. They said that subsidizing access to some services and not to others is a breach of the principle and gives the beneficiaries an unfair advantage.

Critics also argued that Internet.org wasn’t transparent in how it chose the services included in its app. The app originally launched in India with 38 such services.

Initially, Internet.org responded to the criticism by saying that it wasn’t entirely responsible for deciding which services to include because it works with mobile carrier partners. Now it’s trying to take a more transparent approach.

With the latest tweak to the program, any app developer can apply to Internet.org for consideration. In addition to reviewing whether applicants comply with certain legal guidelines, the organization said it will evaluate submissions based on three criteria. Do they encourage users to explore of as much of the Internet as possible? Are they an efficient use of Internet data (no video, file transfer, etc.)? Are they lightweight in design so they work with both feature phones and smartphones?

But once again, Internet.org is making no promises. In a new section of its website for developers, it said:

“It’s important to remember that it’s the operators who are making these services available for free. Developers do not pay to be included, and operators do not charge developers for the data people use for their services. Operators may decline services that cause undue strain to networks, or breach legal or regulatory requirements.”

Whether this move is enough to appease dissidents in India remains to be seen. Beyond the Internet.org controversy, India has been the recent focus of debate over possible changes to how mobile devices are regulated. Mobile carriers have argued that while some services require more infrastructure and data usage, they leave it up to the carriers to invest in better infrastructure to support them instead of footing the bill themselves. Airtel, a carrier available in 30 countries across Africa and Asia recently launched “Airtel Zero,” a platform that lets companies subsidize usage of their apps and mobile services as a marketing strategy. It too, like Internet.org, was met with opposition from net neutrality proponents.

For more about the Facebook-led free Internet service in India, watch this Fortune video:

(This story was updated to make it clearer that it is a Facebook-led group behind the free Internet service in India, and not Facebook)

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