Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for bringing Internet access to the developing world has quickly expanded to more than 30 countries. But it is now hitting a major roadblock from net neutrality activists in India, who say Facebook’s program confines poor people to a digital ghetto while promoting the company’s own business interests.
Through its no-charge app Free Basics, Facebook’s Internet.org offers a "teaser" version of the web: a bundle of about 100 text-only web sites vetted by Facebook. Its goal is to introduce people to this pseudo-Internet for free and eventually graduate them to full, paid mobile data service.
Critics say this preferential access to certain sites violates the principles of a free, open web and isn't as much a charitable offering from Facebook, but rather a clear attempt at profit generation from the social network and its carrier partners (in India, Reliance Communications). Although India already has the second largest number of Internet users in the world, 70% of its population is still offline—a potential market of hundreds of millions of people. Overall, much of Facebook’s future growth is expected to be in emerging markets.
"Facebook is using this to increase their user base and ensure they don’t have competition in India," says Nikhil Pahwa, an Indian journalist and founder of the grassroots Save The Internet campaign, which has helped mobilize protests and more than 400,000 people to write letters to regulators.
Indian digital rights activists have been pushing back against Free Basics for months (comedians have even gotten involved). Now recently, the country’s regulators have decided to take a closer look at it and similar "zero-rated" services that could follow from other carriers. In December, they temporarily shut Free Basics down and are now taking comment from the public and considering new regulations.
Facebook had launched a Save Free Basics media blitz in response, including TV and billboard ads and a pop-up in the app that prompted users to register their support for the program with an automated email to regulators. The pop-up especially, however, has faced a backlash for being heavy-handed and misleading users to sign. And in a recent op-ed in The Times of India, Zuckerberg aggressively defended the program. Globally, he said, 15 million people have "come online" through Free Basics and half have then paid for full Internet access within 30 days.
"Who could possibly be against this?" he wrote.
"Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim—falsely—that this will give people less choice."
But activists say Zuckerberg paints a disingenuous picture and that, in fact, Free Basics very clearly does give people less choice. Yes, Internet access can change the lives of poor people, but other carriers have found ways to bring people online without violating net neutrality—the basic premise Internet users can access all websites equally. In India, Pahwa notes, the carrier Aircel provides full web access for free at slower, 64 kbps speeds for three months. With the Mozilla Foundation, Grameenphone, in Bangladesh, gives users some free, unrestricted data after watching an advertisement and Orange, in Africa, gives users 500 MB of free data for buying a $37 handset. Another idea is for the government provide a basic level of Internet service to everyone.
With the Free Basic program, Pahwa says, confusing marketing has resulted in many people thinking the whole Internet is free and subsequently charged for using other sites. Facebook also collects data—the currency of the web—-on these users. In a Reddit AMA, Facebook vice president Chris Daniels would not rule out placing ads with the service in the future (thought it currently does not).
Already, a small number of Indian media partners have left Free Basics in response to the protests in India. And the backlash could foretell trouble beyond. In Indonesia, Facebook’s initial carrier partner, XL Axiata, pulled out in part due to concerns the program could become controversial like it has in India. Egyptian regulators also recently shut down Free Basics, though their reasons weren’t clear and may have nothing to do with net neutrality issues.
Free Basics is not in the United States, but similar issues are starting to crop up here with T-Mobile’s Binge On service, which allows some free video streaming for participating partners (anything else comes out of your data plan). YouTube, which is not a partner, has complained this violates net neutrality as well.
Pahwa—who has long written about the digital and telecommunications industry in India and is currently a TED Fellow—became involved in the cause mostly because he couldn’t stay away. "Journalists are not supposed to be activists, but I realized I don’t have a choice," he says.