‘Internet for All’: Facebook tries to bring Internet basics to India – again

Facebook's free Internet.org service met with skepticism in India, where users said it gave Facebook an unfair advantage. The service has been retooled, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying again to get Indian users to warm to the idea.

Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will visit New Delhi this week to answer the questions of Indian Facebook users. Here, Zuckerberg (R) listens to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak at a town-hall meeting in Menlo Park, California on September 27, 2015.

There’s no shortage of ambitious plans to bring Internet connections to the billions of people in the world who don’t already have one.

Google is using a network of stratospheric weather balloons to beam signals to remote parts of Earth. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, wants to place 4,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit to make sure every part of the globe is wirelessly connected. And Facebook’s Internet.org project uses existing networks in developing countries to bring people a stripped-down version of the Internet. 

Thanks to that “stripped-down” qualifier, however, Facebook’s project has run into a fair amount of controversy.

When Internet.org debuted in 2013, critics argued that Facebook was violating Net Neutrality principles by bringing its own services to users while freezing out those of rival companies. And when Facebook brought Internet.org to India this February, a journalist called out the service for “being just a Facebook proxy targeting India’s poor” – in other words, a way for Facebook to make sure that newly-connected Web users would be introduced to its own services first. Others organized a campaign calling on regulators to stop Internet.org and establish Net Neutrality rules in India.

In response, Facebook reworked Internet.org to address the criticisms. And this week the project, rebranded as Free Basics, is coming to India – again. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg will visit New Delhi to answer questions from Indian Facebook users and to explain how Free Basics works.

In May Facebook changed the platform’s rules to allow third-party content, as long as that content doesn’t use too much bandwidth (VoIP, video, and file transfers aren’t allowed) and is optimized for low-end smartphones and feature phones. The original Internet.org suite included only a handful of news outlets, job databases, and information sites, along with a text-only version of Facebook, in order to keep bandwidth costs to carriers down.

Internet.org is offered through different cellphone carriers in the 25 countries in which it currently operates. In India, the Free Basics service is offered exclusively through Reliance Communications, which has relatively poor coverage and a slower data network than the country's two most popular services, Vodafone and Airtel.

Chris Daniels, Facebook’s Vice President of Product for Internet.org, told the New York Times that Internet.org has brought nearly one million Indians online for the first time since it debuted in India in February. About 40 percent of users became paying customers, he said, while about 5 percent stuck with the free services. And Mr. Zuckerberg has argued all along that Internet.org is basically a humanitarian project.

“We're doing Internet.org to serve our mission of connecting the world rather than trying to make a profit anytime soon,” he wrote in February in response to an Indian user who asked whether Internet.org was a way for Facebook to increase its ad revenue in emerging markets.

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