Facebook facing backlash over free internet program

September 25, 2015 08:27
Mark Zuckerberg says his free internet access app is compatible with net and that it's always better to have some access and voice than none at all. Photo: AFP

Mark Zuckerberg isn't quite plugged into Facebook users over his ambitious plan to "connect the world".

Zuckerberg's new mobile app, called Internet. org, which offers free internet access in developing countries, is facing a backlash from the very people it wants to help.

One of them is Muhammad Maiyagy Gery, a 24-year-old Indonesian student from a remote mining town on the edge of Borneo.

After testing the app, Gery's excitment turned to frustration when he was unable to access Google and other local sites, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Gery said Zuckerberg is an “inspiration in the tech world” but his company’s free internet effort is “inadequate”.

Gery’s reaction illustrates the unexpected criticism Facebook has encountered to its bold initiative to bring free internet access to the world’s four billion people who don’t have it and to increase connectivity among those with limited access.

He is one of many users who say a Facebook-led partnership is providing truncated access to websites, thwarting the principles of what is known in the US as net neutrality -- the view that internet providers shouldn’t be able to dictate consumer access to websites.

Since Zuckerberg announced the US$1 billion project two years ago, Facebook has launched Internet.org in 19 countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa by teaming up with mobile carriers and technology giants including Samsung Electronics Co., chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. and telecom equipment firm Ericsson AB.

Facebook says that through the initiative, in which it is also experimenting with drones and satellites to deliver Web access, some nine million people have come online.

Users with data-enabled feature phones can access a special website through a mobile browser while those with smartphones can download the app from Google’s Play Store.

Although arrangements vary by country, the app typically provides a simplified, low-data version of Facebook, its Messenger service and selected local websites offering services like jobs, health information and sports updates.

Facebook says it works with mobile operators, which provide free data, and governments to pick sites for the platform.

While some applaud the initiative, the US company is dealing with a backlash from users in some of its fastest-growing markets such as Indonesia and India, which are key to its future expansion.

In response to the criticism, Zuckerberg earlier this year wrote an op-ed article that appeared in two Indian newspapers defending the project.

He argued that the initiative is compatible with the principles of net neutrality, and that if people “can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all”.

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