UPDATED 19:05 EST / DECEMBER 28 2015

NEWS

Mark Zuckerberg once again defends Internet.org from critics in India

The idea of providing free basic internet access to everyone sounds like an easy sell on paper, but Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced increasing criticism for his Internet.org initiative, whose mission is to provide internet connectivity to developing countries like Colombia, Kenya, and others.

Internet.org has faced especially harsh criticisms in India, where propenents of net neutrality have taken issue with some of the organization’s practices, particularly the way in which it provides access to a short list of approved sites and apps rather than unrestricted access to the entire internet.

In response to these criticisms, Zuckerberg recently published an op ed in the Times of India, where he defended the goals of Internet.org.

“We know that when people have access to the internet they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.”

“That’s not theory. That’s fact.”

“Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite”

Zuckerberg compared Internet.org’s “Free Basics” program with free public services like libraries, public hospitals, and schools. Calling the program “a bridge to the full internet and digital equality,” he argued that Internet.org could close the widening gap between those with internet access and those without, and he had some tough words for people who oppose his plans.

“Instead of recognizing 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,” Zuckerberg said. “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 recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite.”

Zuckerberg concluded, “Choose facts over false claims. Everyone deserves access to the internet. Free basic internet services can help achieve this. Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India.”

While Zuckerberg’s argument that Internet.org fully subscribes to the ideals of net neutrality is debatable, especially because the program works off of a whitelist of approved sites and apps, supporters of the organization have pointed out that if the choice comes down to limited internet or no internet, then limited internet would still be preferable.

“Free Basics and its peer telecom operator models are not open, plural or diverse, and can be harmful for India’s democracy”

The Times of India published a counter-argument to Zuckerberg’s defense of Internet.org in an article penned by Indian entrepreneur and savetheinternet.in volunteer Nikhil Pahwa.

“Among all the questions we’ve raised about Free Basics, if there was one that I would pick to ask Mark Zuckerberg, it would be this,” Pahwa wrote. “Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around a hundred sites (including a personal blog and a real estate company homepage), while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?”

Pahwa refuted the claim that “some access is better than none,” saying that low income users would prefer temporary access to the full internet rather than unlimited access to a very small portion of the internet.

“FreeBasics and its peer telecom operator models are not open, plural or diverse, and can be harmful for India’s democracy,” Pahwa said. “It is a form of vertical integration that is anti-competitive and is inimical for India’s fledgling startup ecosystem. It gives Reliance Communication and Facebook the power to pick winners and losers online.”

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) seems to share Pahwa’s concerns, as it has ordered Internet.org’s partner in India, Reliance Communications, to temporarily halt support for Free Basics while it investigates whether or not the service is anti-competitive.

Photo by Robert Scoble 

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