Amid fierce opposition in one of its most important markets, Facebook has launched an aggressive campaign in India for an app that gives users access to a small number of Internet services for free, arguing it could help lift millions out of poverty.
The Menlo Park, Calif.-based social media giant has blanketed Indian cities with billboards and taken out two-page newspaper advertisements to tout Free Basics, which Indian regulators suspended last week after opponents claimed it violated Internet neutrality, the principle that Internet providers allow equal access to all online content.
In an op-ed piece published Monday in the Times of India, the country's largest English-language newspaper, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote that critics have mischaracterized Free Basics, which he said serves as a bridge to the Internet for millions who had never been online before.
"If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services," Zuckerberg wrote. He compared the service to libraries, education and healthcare – basic public goods that everyone expects to be available.
Libraries "don't contain every book, but they still provide a world of good," Zuckerberg wrote.
The struggle over Free Basics has evolved into a surprisingly bitter contest between Zuckerberg's goal to spread Internet access across the globe – while recruiting millions more Facebook users – and a diverse collection of Indian activists and entrepreneurs who accuse the company of creating a second-tier Internet service for people who can't afford to pay for data.
It also shows how India has become a battleground for tech giants, including Google and Microsoft, who are grappling for advantage in a country that will soon surpass the U.S. and claim the world's second highest number of Internet users – with two-thirds of the population yet to be reached.
Free Basics is a pre-selected suite of Internet services for healthcare, education, weather, jobs and communication – including, of course, Facebook – that the company has rolled out in more than 30 emerging markets, including India, in partnership with local telecom companies.
Users get those services – which vary by country – for free but must pay for access to other sites and apps outside of Free Basics. That has led to allegations that it hinders consumer choice and violates the net neutrality principle, which requires that Internet providers don't prioritize traffic to certain websites.
Critics say that by controlling which services are part of Free Basics, Facebook will determine the content that the poorest Internet users get to see. Mahesh Murthy, a Mumbai venture capitalist and net neutrality activist, has described it as "digital apartheid."
"Unlike the rest of us who are all digitally equal, being able to access the full and complete internet, which has more than a billion sites on it, Facebook wants to offer our poor, our young and our future a few dozen sites, that's all," Murthy wrote in an online commentary.
Internet experts in India have also raised questions about online privacy, arguing that Facebook, by directing all traffic through its partner apps, could suck up data about its users.
Facebook has responded by promising strict data encryption and saying it will not bar any apps or developers from joining the Free Basics suite if they meet its technical requirements.
The company says that 15 million people use Free Basics in countries such as the Philippines, Malawi, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia, including about 800,000 in India. According to its data, half the users who go online for the first time with Free Basics pay to access the full Internet within a month.
"Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality," Zuckerberg wrote in the op-ed.
Many Indians have not been impressed. Several top Internet companies refused to participate in Free Basics. More than 1 million people submitted petitions earlier this year in support of net neutrality to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, according to Save the Internet, an online volunteer group that led the campaign.
Last week, the regulatory authority ordered Reliance Communications – which has partnered with Facebook to release Free Basics in India – to stop the service pending a ruling on whether it violates net neutrality. A decision is expected next month.
The controversy has been a blow to Zuckerberg, who has personally courted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what has widely been seen as an effort to boost Facebook's 1.5 billion worldwide user base on the back of the fast-growing Indian market. With an estimated 400 million Internet users – a nearly 50% jump over last year – India represents the last massive frontier for Facebook, which is banned in China.
Google is also trying to increase its usage in India. Google Chief Executive Sunder Pichai, who was born in the Indian city of Chennai, visited the country this month and reiterated plans to provide Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations and allow Google users to type in 11 Indian languages, including Modi's native Gujarati, on the Android platform.
The Indian regulator has announced a Wednesday deadline for public comment on Free Basics, prompting Facebook's marketing push. "Support Rahul," says one ad, featuring a man whom the company says is an engineering student who used Free Basics for research.
Opponents have also swung into action. The comedy group All India Bakchod released an online video (with expletives) last week opposing the Facebook plan and poking fun at its tactics.
Noting that Facebook was running a prominent link on its site in India asking users to support "digital equality," which the company says more than 3 million people have clicked, Rohan Joshi, one of the comedians, joked: "When it's the top notification on Facebook, in vague wording, that makes it sound like Free Basics is basically the solution to India's poverty problem."
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