Facebook in India: Can Mark Zuckerberg's plan really help the poor?

Social-media giant Facebook has come under fire in India for its Free Basics plan, which would offer access to some online services, including Facebook, for free.

Stephen Lam/Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (l.) gives a 'namaste' gesture of greeting as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg applauds on stage after a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Sept. 27.

In defending the company's Free Basics Internet service offered in India, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has called Internet access a basic human right. But critics say the plan is less about lifting the needy out of poverty, and more about Facebook's marketing goals.

"Who could possibly be against this?" wrote Mr. Zuckerberg Monday in an op-ed published in the Times of India about the service which would offer limited access to online services to feature-phone users, for free. Zuckerberg says the platform will be open to all software developers, and the version of Facebook offered will include no advertisements. Internet access like that offered by the company, he argues, could lift some Indians out of poverty.

Free Basics provides information on health, travel, jobs, and local government. By offering a limited number of apps and transmitting as little data as possible, costs are minimized.

Zuckerberg made his appeal after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked Facebook's partner, Reliance Communications, to stop providing the service until its legality could be determined.

In his op-ed Zuckerberg likened the importance of Internet access to that of public libraries and public education. But many remain skeptical of the company's stated goals.

“This clearly is not a plan you want if you are focusing on the poorest of the poor, but it works for a target of assisting perhaps middle and urban-middle class,” says Michael Kugelman, Michael Kugelman Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in an interview. “It is really putting the cart before the horse. Providing Internet access presumes a certain level of funds, a certain demographic. Who is the target here? It’s not really the poor is it?”

Mahesh Murthy, a prominent Indian venture capitalist, has decried the program as "imperialism and the East India Company all over again," carried out under the lie of "digital equality."

Mr. Kugelman disagrees. “I hesitate to side with calling it 'imperialism' simply because I feel that Zuckerberg is a well-intentioned guy and he wants to expand even more the level of Internet penetration in India,” he says.

Zuckerberg wrote, “More than 35 operators have launched Free Basics and 15 million people have come online. And half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full Internet within 30 days.”

“You’re not lifting the poor up to a level of paying for Internet access in 30 days. That suggests a much more advanced demographic financially,” says Kugelman. “If the aim is to help lift people out of poverty then it’s kind of pie in the sky because a lot of things have to happen before a the poor and even working poor there, anyone really below the urban-middle class, can afford a device or even the time to spend using it.”

In addition to the practicality are concerns that the program violates the core tenets of net neutrality: that all Internet content and users should be treated equally. Others claim the program too closely mirrors Facebook's marketing goals.

Critics took to Twitter to express their fears and frustrations.

First Amendment lawyer Marvin Ammori who has been a prominent voice in the network neutrality debate in the US and abroad says in an interview that he is reserving judgment, “I can see both sides here and there are some very valid concerns.”

“Generally it’s good when a company’s goals and interests dovetail with the public interest,” Mr. Ammori says. “The fears that Facebook is going to get new consumers locked into Facebook, that’s a problem to some extent because social networks rely on the number of people they have. The more people they have the harder it would be for a new local social network to defeat Facebook or become prominent in, say, India or somewhere else.”

Ammori adds. “Also, zero-ratings, are part of the problem, determining which applications get an advantage in the market instead of leaving it up to the consumer,” Ammori explains. So-called zero-rating plans count only some Internet services toward data-usage limits, giving some websites or networks an unfair advantage.

“There have been several countries around the world who have already determined that zero rating violates net neutrality,” he explains. “I will say that [Facebook] ... seems like they’re trying to be as consumer-friendly as possible in their zero ratings.”

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