Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a simple question for India: Isn’t some Internet better than no Internet?
In an op-ed published on Monday by The Times of India, Zuckerberg tried to make the case for his Free Basics service, providing users access to over 100 websites and applications at no charge. While Free Basics, which is part of Zuckerberg’s Internet.org initiative, has been available in India for nearly a year, it’s come under heavy fire in the country over claims that it violates net neutrality—the idea that all Internet traffic and websites should be treated the same—and ultimately hurts Facebook’s competition.
“If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services,” Zuckerberg wrote. “That’s why more than 30 countries have recognized Free Basics as a program consistent with net neutrality and good for consumers.”
However, in India, which has the fastest-growing Internet adoption rate in the world despite having nearly a billion people offline, the argument for Free Basics has been debatable.
Internet.org, which Zuckerberg started, offers its Free Basics service to approximately 35 countries worldwide. The organization partners with telecoms to provide free access to the Internet. However, Free Basics is designed to offer “basic” Internet services. So, while users may get access to Facebook and Wikipedia, they are not able to freely roam the Internet for anything they want. Indeed, only sites and apps that have met Facebook-determined technical requirements can be included in Free Basics. Facebook (FB) competitor Twitter (TWTR), for instance, is not part of the program.
Zuckerberg and his supporters say such an approach to access is critical. They argue that in order for telecoms to offer free access to the Internet, data usage must be kept at a minimum. They are also quick to note that any site or app can join the program, as long as they meet the requirements placed upon them by Facebook.
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“More than 35 operators have launched Free Basics and 15 million people have come online,” Zuckerberg wrote. “And half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days. So the data is clear. Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality.”
Critics, however, see it differently. They acknowledge that Free Basics may get people to the Internet, but argue that it gives Facebook a money-making engine and harms competition. After all, they argue, Facebook is one of the first names users see when they come online, giving the company an advantage over competitors as more and more Indians join the Internet.
“Facebook is being disingenuous—as disingenuous as the company’s promotional programs for Free Basics to its Indian users—when it says that Free Basics is in conformity with net neutrality,” Nikhil Pahwa, an entrepreneur and Free Basics opponent wrote in his own op-ed published on Monday in The Times of India. He added that Free Basics is “rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural, and diverse web.”
Indeed, his argument that the poor are not getting the kind of Internet access they deserve is one that has caught on in India. In April, one critic went so far as to say that Free Basics provides “poor Internet for poor people.”
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Meanwhile, the Indian government has stepped in. The country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) last week ordered the Free Basics local carrier partner Reliance to temporarily halt access to the platform. TRAI would only say that it’s reviewing Free Basics and would make a final determination on whether it should be allowed in India next month.
All the while, the rhetoric on both sides is growing louder. Facebook on Sunday published a double full-page ad in The Sunday Times of India in support of Free Basics, listing ten reasons its program will not violate net neutrality, including that 3.2 million people have petitioned the TRAI to support Free Basics.
Save The Internet Coalition, an organization that has set up its own website and petition engine against Free Basics, listed 10 reasons the program is flawed.
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“Free Basics isn’t about bringing people online,” one item reads. “It’s about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything else remains paid. Users who pay for Internet access can still access Free Basics for free, giving Facebook and its partners an advantage. Free Basics is a violation of Net Neutrality.”
Zuckerberg, who has been to India several times this year, calls such claims “false.” He pointed to libraries, hospitals, and schools, saying that they all provide “basic services that are so important for people’s well-being that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely.” He argues that Internet access should be viewed in the same light.
Zuckerberg went on to say that he learned of a farmer, named Ganesh, who started using Free Basics in 2014. After looking up “commodity prices to get better deals,” Ganesh is now “investing in new crops and livestock.” He added that everything Facebook is doing through Free Basics is designed to help people like Ganesh.
“Who could possibly be against this?” Zuckerberg asked.