WHAT has happened?
Regulators in India have effectively blocked “Free Basics,” Facebook’s signature project aiming to bring free basic Internet services to phone users.
Free Basics is a key pillar of Facebook’s ambitious Internet.org program, which is looking to deliver the Internet to billions of people around the world.
Facebook works in partnership with local telecommunications companies in 35 countries to offer a free and text-only version of Facebook. Users benefit by receiving news, health and employment services which they can presently not access.
India has 130 million Facebook users, out of a population of more than 1.2 billion people. The country has more Facebook users than any country in the world — bar the United States — and Internet.org boasts one million members in India. Facebook hopes that once the recipients of Free Basics are hooked, they will be encouraged to pay for data services, allowing for a fuller Internet experience.
“We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who don’t have the Internet,” he said at the time. “The people who aren’t on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for more access to the Internet.”
Critics in India and elsewhere have said that by offering a free but limited package, Facebook and its telecommunications partners are violating the principle of net neutrality.
In India, Free Basics offers free internet searches using Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Google searches can be completed only after a charge is incurred.
Critics have also argued that Zuckerberg is creating a “walled off” version of the Internet, in an effort to lure Indian consumers into paying for extra services from Facebook.
In opposition so far, a million Indians rallied to an organization called Save The Internet.
“On the open Internet, everyone is equal. On Internet.org, Facebook is the kingmaker,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, an Indian news site, who vociferously opposed Internet.org. Pahwa also helped to organize the campaign for Save the Internet.
In truth, the company’s attempt to launch Free Basics has encountered a series of setbacks in India.
The plan faced stiff opposition from net neutrality advocates, questions from Indian telecommunications regulators and a botched marketing campaign from Facebook’s Indian telecommunications partner, Reliance.
The controversy over zero-rated services
Free Internet services, otherwise known as zero-rated services, have faced controversy elsewhere.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission in the US sent letters requesting information from AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile about services that allow users free access to certain streaming video services.
The FCC argued that it wanted to understand whether the free access conflicted with issues of net neutrality.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on Monday outlawed charging different prices for downloading different kinds of Internet content.
The ruling, which regulators said was guided by the principles of net neutrality, is a major setback for Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, who had lobbied hard for the program as part of a campaign to expand Internet access to billions of people around the world.
Yet, it is a victory for critics who argued that Facebook’s Free Basics program gave an unfair advantage to some Internet services over others.
The ruling essentially bans programs such as Free Basics that are based on what is known as “zero rating” in industry jargon, because they do not charge for downloading certain kinds of data. In a policy memo, Indian regulators warned that such programs raise the risk that users’ “knowledge and outlook … would be shaped only by the information made available by those select offerings.”
Critics of Free Basics have argued that the free service effectively steers users towards Facebook and its partners, while making it harder for other Internet services, including homegrown startups, to build their own audiences.
They also say that the project will only make Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg and his partners richer, while activists have described the service as “a poor internet for poor people”.
While Zuckerburg has acknowledged that his business would benefit from gaining more users around the world, he has also argued that internet access is a powerful tool for economic development in low-income regions.
“While we’re disappointed with today’s decision, I want to personally communicate that we are committed to keep working to break down barriers to connectivity in India and around the world,” Zuckerberg said.
“We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them.”
©2016 AL JAZEERA (DOHA, QATAR) / DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.