News / Asia

    Facebook’s Plan for Free Internet in India Draws Fierce Criticism

    Indian students wearing Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg masks perform a street play during a protest against Facebook’s "Free Basics" in Hyderabad, India, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015.
    Indian students wearing Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg masks perform a street play during a protest against Facebook’s "Free Basics" in Hyderabad, India, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015.
    Anjana Pasricha

    An initiative by Facebook to bring free Internet access to the poor in India has run into a storm of criticism by those who say it will violate net neutrality -- the principle that Internet providers allow equal access to all online content.

    In recent days, Facebook has been defending its plans in appeals directly to the public, through advertisements in leading newspapers and on huge billboards in major cities. The advertisements defend its app, called Free Basics, which gives free access on mobile phones to a handful of sites for services such as communication, healthcare, and education. The ads say the platform aims to bring a million Indians in poor rural areas online.

    The aggressive outreach came as India’s regulatory authority, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), suspended the rollout of Free Basics service earlier this month.

    On Monday, in an article in the Times of India, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a personal appeal to garner support for Free Basics, calling it a “bridge to the full Internet and digital equality” and wondered who could oppose such an program.

    Philanthropy or marketing?

    Staunch defenders of net neutrality say the plan is less about philanthropy and more about improving Facebook’s position in the fast-growing Indian Internet market.

    An Indian group called savetheinternet.in is at the forefront of opposition to the plan to give free access to only a select group of Internet sites.   

    Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer at the group, questioned why Free Basics gives users access to only about a 100 sites, instead of giving them access to the entire web?

    “I think the idea is to give them access to everything and let them choose what works for them. Free Basics is trying to perpetuate this false dichotomy that you cannot give free Internet access without limiting it,” Pahwa said.

    FILE - A worker cleans a logo of Bharti Airtel at its zonal office building in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.
    FILE - A worker cleans a logo of Bharti Airtel at its zonal office building in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.

    He said there already exist alternatives, such as a plan from Indian carrier Aircel that is rolling out access to the open web at relatively slow speeds of 64 kbps. He said that at least gives people a choice for where they will spend their time, instead of creating a separate “walled garden” as Facebook proposes.

    In his article in the Times of India, Mark Zuckerberg said the company has already rolled out the service in 30 emerging markets. He questioned his critics, saying that "instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco [telecommunications company], and allow any developer to offer services for free, they claim – falsely – that this will give people less choice.”

    But the Facebook boss has been unable to convince campaigners fighting for open access to the web. They say under the guise of providing free Internet, Facebook is pushing a corporate strategy to cement its position in one of the world’s fastest growing online markets, which already has 130 million Facebook users. As many as 700 million more people could come online in the coming years.

    Free internet?

    “This is just a smart customer acquisition or a user acquisition strategy from Facebook,” Pahwa said. “Facebook has said they reserve the right to monetize it (Free Basics) later. They get users to sign up and then they change the rules.”

    A similar controversy that erupted in April this year forced an Indian telecom, Bharti Airtel, to suspend plans to launch a new marketing platform, Airtel Zero, where Internet businesses could pay to have users browse their sites for free.

    Facebook says more than three million people have petitioned the Indian regulator, TRAI, in support of Free Basics. Indian campaigners say many people signed on inadvertently, not knowing what they were supporting.

    In any case, opponents say they are not disheartened by those numbers, saying they do not have funds to splash on huge advertising campaigns, but do have committed public opinion on their side.

    “The regulator does not run a popularity contest. A public consultation is not about who has more members, it is about who has more sensible opinions… we are hoping the regulator will do their job properly,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, a volunteer at savetheinternet.in in Bangalore.

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora