Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has vigorously defended his company’s motives for rolling out free basic internet services across India, dismissing what he called “false claims” by critics who say its Free Basics service promotes a “walled garden” controlled by Facebook.
In an opinion piece published by the Indian newspaper the Times of India, Zuckerberg equates internet access to education and health provision, claiming it could help relieve the poverty of one billion people in India who are not currently online.
“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,” he wrote. “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite.”
Free Basics, part of Facebook’s Internet.org campaign, offers a selection of basic apps including travel, weather and news, to smartphone users in developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Through a deal between Facebook and local mobile operators, the data to access those services is free.
Zuckerberg went on to describe meeting local farmers Ganesh and Bharati Nimbalkar in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Free Basics had given them access to online weather tools and to commodity prices on Reuters Market Light, which helped them secure better deals and in turn allowed them to invest in new crops and livestock.
“This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests – there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics. If people lose access to free basic services, they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the internet today.”
India is two days away from the end of a public consultation on net neutrality, with the national regulator already ordering the mobile operator Reliance to suspend the Free Basics service over concerns about net neutrality.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been running a public consultation over net neutrality since March 2015, the principle being that no service should be prioritised over another so that every citizen has equal access to everything online.
Critics’ biggest objection of Facebook’s initiative has been that Free Basics offers only a select few services chosen and controlled by Facebook, which the company says is to keep data costs to a minimum.
Net neutrality campaigner Nikhil Pahwa asked why Facebook had opted for that model over “the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?”
“Free Basics and its peer telecom operator models are not open, plural or diverse, and can be harmful for India’s democracy,” he wrote. “It is a form of vertical integration that is anti-competitive and is inimical for India’s fledgling startup ecosystem. It gives Reliance Communication and Facebook the power to pick winners and losers online.
“With telecom operators making money from websites and apps instead of from consumers, their focus will shift to meeting the needs of their business clients, over the needs of consumers. The incentive to invest in better, faster and cheaper access to the entire internet will be replaced with one of providing better, faster and cheaper access to its websites and apps.”
Pointing to estimates that India will have 500 million internet users by 2017, Pahwa referred to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who has expressed concerns about the Internet.org project.
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no,” he said. “No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said: “We are committed to Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.”
A Reliance spokesperson has commented: “As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval.”
This article was written by Jemima Kiss, for theguardian.com on Monday 28th December 2015 22.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010