Mark Zuckerberg made an appeal in an Indian newspaper asking for the country to allow his free internet philanthropy effort internet.org. The proposed Free Basics plan is intended to allow Facebook and a couple of other services like education, health care and employment listings available for free on the handsets of Indian users.

This however has sparked debate in that the program limits the net neutrality principle that in effect means it could affect the pricing of access to different websites.

Net neutrality is belief that anything on the internet should have equal access to the consumers and by extension internet service should be a basic human right and free for all.

Critics have stated that internet should be open to all and not limited to a handful of organizations. Some countries have rejected the program such as Chile and Slovenia siting that it is a limitation to innovation and flow of information across all platforms.

Open to all

Facebook, the world’s largest social networking company has been accused of favoring a limited band of the Internet and excluding rival services. It is seen that they are using the initiative to draw in users into the social network that is already being used by over a billion people worldwide.

Mahesh Murthy, co-founder of Seedfund and marketing startup Pinstorm, stated that being that there is no google no YouTube, free basics is a way of locking users into the Facebook ecosystem. He further added that free internet was not an issue as long as it is open to everyone.

Campaigns

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, this month asked if telecommunication service providers should be allowed to have different data pricing for different data usage on websites, platforms and applications. This was in a consultation paper that allowed comments that were to end on Dec 30.

Activists have argued that the free basics is similar to government property being grabbed given that the data rates in India are already low and everyone will soon be on the free and open internet.

Facebook has been scrambling to gain support for the Free Basics program with Zuckerberg writing an opinion piece in the times of India. He indicated that the effort was not about Facebook’s commercial interests and that there were no ads on the free Facebook version on free basics. This coupled with Facebook being in the process of finishing an app that support 2G internet and ads has raised questions of the truthfulness of purpose.

A further “Save Free Basics In India” campaign that has been run on Facebook asking for support from Indian users for “digital equality” also pulls into question of the intent.  The campaign involves a form that when filled out sends an email to regulators for the same. There is the option to also send notifications to user’s friends unless they opt out further showing how Facebook is ready to use its ecosystem to achieve its own goals.

Zuckerberg while talking to university students in the institute of New Delhi said that there was tremendous opportunity in India. He added that if there was even one billion people not connected that was one of the biggest opportunities to develop the economy and help remove poverty and lift up folks.

Billions in infrastructure

It certainly does not help to alleviate the doubt in net neutrality’s activists’ minds when there are billions of dollars spent to send out drones, satellites and lasers that will deliver the web to under-served areas.

Facebook billionaire Zuckerberg has said that none of Facebook’s partners or Facebook will make any money off this initiative, and that the goal is to bring internet access to the developing world alleviating poverty.

Only time will tell whether the initiative will take off, given that it is also a challenge for India that wants to set up on its own and develop their own domestic handset business among many other services. The initiative is going to make it hard to innovate around it and especially when they have limited the access to a handful of companies.

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