Daily Management Review

As a Global Test Case, Facebook Fights for Free Internet in India


As a Global Test Case, Facebook Fights for Free Internet in India
With local tech start-ups joining the front line against Facebook Inc founder Mark Zuckerberg and his plan to roll out free Internet to the country's masses, India has become a battleground over the right to unrestricted Internet access.
The Indian government is still undecided on the issue and has asked Facebook's Free Basics plan to be kept on hold for the while.
The Free Basics program offers pared-down web services on mobile phones, along with access to the company's own social network and messaging services, without charge. It has been launched in more than 35 developing countries around the world.
However there are allegations of violations of the principles of net neutrality as Facebook launched the program about 10 months ago in India in collaboration with mobile operator Reliance Communications.
Critics argue that the program violates the concept that all websites on the internet should be treated equally. Critics claim that small content providers and start-ups that don't participate in it would be put at a disadvantage.
"India is a test case for a company like Facebook and what happens here will affect the roll out of this service in other smaller countries where perhaps there is not so much awareness at present," said Mishi Choudhary, a New York-based lawyer who works on technology and Internet advocacy issues.
Facebook also has the ambition to expand in its largest market outside the United States which also hangs by a thread. India is a huge growth market for firms including Google and Facebook as only 252 million out of India's 1.3 billion people have Internet access.
Stressing their demand to ensure that Internet access was allowed without differential pricing, a letter was recently written to the watchdog Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) by the heads of nine start-up including Paytm- backed by China's Alibaba Group and dining app Zomato.
Differential pricing for Internet access would lead to a "few players like Facebook with its Free Basics platform acting as gate-keepers", said the executives in the letter.
"There is no reason to create a digital divide by offering a walled garden of limited services in the name of providing access to the poor," they wrote.
Zuckerberg has got personally involved.
"We know that for every 10 people connected to the Internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the Internet. What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?," Zuckerberg wrote in The Times of India newspaper this week.
Facebook aims to give people a taste of what the internet can offer, said a company spokesman. In order to counter the protests, Facebook has launched an aggressive advertising campaign with a series of full-page newspaper advertisements and has set up billboard banners.
The regulator, TRAI, is expected to take a decision in this matter next month and has asked Facebook and Reliance Communications to suspend Free Basics until then.
"Our job is to make a policy that is in the interest of telecom operators and end users in India," TRAI chairman Ram Sevak Sharma said.