14 December 2018
Mark Zuckerberg is pushing back against claims his free internet plan is a tactic to expand Facebook's reach. Photo: Bloomberg
Mark Zuckerberg is pushing back against claims his free internet plan is a tactic to expand Facebook's reach. Photo: Bloomberg

Why India’s net neutrality activists are battling Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg is in a spot of trouble in India after making a personal appeal in one of the country’s leading newspapers to allow free internet access.

The op-ed has stirred controversy and drew questions from regulators, Bloomberg reports.

Zuckerberg outlined his proposed Free Basics plan which allows customers to access Facebook and other services such as education, healthcare and employment listings from their phones without a data plan.

Yet, activists say the program threatens the principles of net neutrality and could change pricing in India for access to different websites.

The backlash in India centers on net neutrality, the principle that all internet websites should be equally accessible.

Critics accused the world’s largest social networking company of favoring a limited swath of the internet and excluding rival services.

And Facebook’s broader initiative, including Free Basics, is seen as an effective way to draw more users onto a social network already used by over a billion people.

“We haven’t got a problem with free internet as long as it’s open to all. Free Basics is just a way of locking in users into the Facebook ecosystem. There’s no Google, no YouTube,” said Mahesh Murthy, a venture capitalist who co-founded Seedfund and marketing startup Pinstorm.

“It can’t be that the rich get access to the entire internet and the poor get access only to Facebook.”

Zuckerberg’s Facebook is spending billions of dollars on, including projects to deliver the Web to underserved areas via drones, satellites and lasers.

The billionaire co-founder has said Facebook or its partners will not make money off this initiative and that the goal is to bring internet access to the developing world and alleviate poverty.

“This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests — there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics,” Zuckerberg wrote in an opinion piece in the Times of India.

“If people lose access to free basic services, they will simply lose access to the opportunities offered by the internet today.”

This month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked in a “consultation paper” whether telecommunications service providers should be allowed to charge different pricing for data usage on websites, applications and platforms.

The initial comment period for the Indian consultation paper ends on Dec. 30.

Activists have argued that Free Basics is a “land grab on government property” and that with data rates in India already being low, eventually “everybody will be on the full and open internet”.

Free Basics, a program already offered in 37 countries from Bangladesh to Zambia.

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