India backlash threatens Facebook’s free web vision

2015-12-30 06:58 - Bhuma Shrivastava
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Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg. (File: AP)


Mumbai - Mark Zuckerberg didn’t see this coming.

When Facebook’s co-founder proposed bringing free web services to India, his stated aim was to help connect millions of impoverished people to unlimited opportunity. Instead, critics have accused him of making a poorly disguised land grab in India’s burgeoning internet sector. The growing backlash could threaten the very premise of, his ambitious, two-year-old effort to connect the planet.

Indian authorities are circumspect because the Facebook initiative provides access to only a limited set of websites - undermining the equal access precepts of net neutrality. The telecommunications regulator is calling for initial comments by today on whether wireless carriers can charge differently for data usage across websites, applications and platforms. Losing this fight could imperil Facebook’s Free Basics, which allows customers to access the social network and select services such as Messenger and Microsoft’s Bing without a data plan.

“The India fight is helping shape debates elsewhere,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based non-profit advocacy group. “Activists in other countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia are watching this debate and will seize the momentum created in India.”

Zuckerberg’s argument for free web access is based in part on Deloitte research showing that for every 10 people who are connected to the Web, one is lifted out of poverty and one job is created.

Facebook argues that by giving people free access to a small slice of the internet, they will quickly see the value in paying for the whole thing. Zuckerberg has said his biggest challenge in connecting people to the web isn’t access to cellular networks, but a social hurdle: he needs to prove to people who have never been online that the internet is useful.

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