Angry Zuckerberg, watchful India

Mark Zuckerberg is feeling the force of critics who believe his effort to provide Indians with free access to a limited number of internet services hurts India’s democracy and violates net neutrality. In an unusually pugnacious appeal, the Facebook founder forcefully defended introducing his Free Basics service, “A set of basic internet services for education, health care, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data”.

Facebook, Zuckerberg says, has already launched the service in partnership with more than 35 mobile operators in more than 30 countries. He says more than 15 million people have already come online because of the service. “The data is clear,” he says. “Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality.”So—in a tone which many say mocks critics—Zuckerberg asks: “Who could possibly be against this? Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India.”

After all, with more than 130 million users, India is Facebook’s second biggest market in the world. Zuckerberg has been bear-hugged by Narendra Modi in California, and has visited India twice. He insists India will be crucial to getting “the next billion online”. Many believe Zuckerberg possibly expected a cakewalk with Free Basics, and is now irate at critics who are not convinced about his motives. Earlier last month, India’s telecom regulator directed a mobile operator that partnered with Facebook to put the Free Basics offer on hold following criticism that it runs contrary to the principles of net neutrality and that data providers should not favour some online services over others by offering cheaper or faster access. Last April, thousands of Indians sent emails to the regulator and set up websites demanding a free and fair internet. All this is not helping Zuckerberg. So Facebook has launched a lavish advertising campaign to canvass support for Free Basics. And on December 28, he lashed out against his critics for continuing to “spread false claims—even if that means leaving behind a billion people”.

Zuckerberg wrote, “Instead of recognising the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim—falsely—that this will make the internet more like a walled garden. Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim—falsely—that this will give people less choice. Instead of recognising that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim—falsely—the exact opposite.” But prominent tech activists are not convinced. Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer with, says the Facebook boss has not answered a critical question: “Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around 100 sites, while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?”

Pahwa, a fierce defender of net neutrality, says research has shown that “less experienced, low-income groups prefer access to an open and unrestricted internet”. They should rather be given the choice, he writes, of “deciding what they want to access, with millions of websites and apps to choose from, for, say, three days, over being given unlimited access to a limited selection”.

Zuckerberg possibly answers this question partially in his appeal. He says “certain basic services” are important for people’s well-being in all societies, so we have collections of free books in libraries, free basic health care—and not every treatment—which saves lives, and free basic education. Ditto with free basic internet services, he argues. But this is only a part of the story, say critics. Pahwa says Facebook and the mobile partner Reliance Communications “reserve the right to reject applications from websites and apps for Free Basics, and force them to conform to its technical guidelines”.

Said Pahwa, “Services which compete with telecom operator services will not be allowed on Free Basics. It would need Facebook’s permission (and hence, time) for a citizen-powered crisis-response effort such as to be made available to those on Free Basics, and the flexibility and freedom with which such an effort can evolve would be restricted or limited by Facebook’s guidelines.”

More than half of India’s 320 million internet users—94 per cent of whom are on mobile—use Facebook and WhatsApp, both owned by Zuckerberg, every day. The country is expected to have 500 million internet users by the end of 2017.

Biswas is features and analysis editor, BBC news.

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