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Facebook invites Google Plus, Twitter on board to boost Free Basics

The project has been criticised by Microsoft, Truecaller and a number of Indian startup entrepreneurs who claim that it violates the principles of net neutrality

Anita Babu & Alnoor Peermohamed  |  Bengaluru 

Facebook

In a bid to counter the criticism over Free Basics, Facebook on Saturday invited rivals Google Plus and Twitter on the platform to help more people go online.

Free Basics is Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project to spread the net of the internet, by providing some services to people from under-privileged sections of society without any charge — while, eventually, getting them to pay for internet access and better services (see chart).

The project has been criticised by Microsoft, Truecaller and a number of Indian start-up entrepreneurs who claim that it violates the principles of net neutrality — following which internet service providers enable access to all content regardless of the source. On Saturday, Chris Daniels, the head of Facebook’s internet.org initiative that oversees Free Basics, said: “People always say we have economic interests. Most businesses do. Our economic interest is best served by getting people to the full internet in this case. So that’s the purpose of the program.”


He was taking part in an “ask-me-anything” forum on Reddit, an online bulletin board. Answering questions which registered Reddit users had posted, Daniels said: “The reality is that globally 50 per cent of people move off Free Basics to full net in 30 days and most of the rest churn off.”

Facebook’s earns money by allowing advertisers to post content on their social networking website that can be viewed by over a billion users, of which a tenth is in India.

“We aren't trying to mislead anyone. We want everyone to make an informed decision. We are spending money to market the benefits of the program because we know that it works and believe it would be a good thing everywhere — like the data shows it has been in many markets,” said Daniels.

Facebook launched a massive multi-media campaign in India early this month arguing that its plan will get more people onto the internet. It is under attack by net-neutrality supporters who say Facebook violates the principal of universal access to internet by limiting users to a few handpicked internet services.

Nikhil Pahwa, the founder of the digital news portal Medianama, who is leading SavetheInternet campaign against Facebook’s campaign, said Daniels’ responses defending Free Basics throws up more questions on its integrity.

“They are open to the idea of running advertisements on Free Basics. If Facebook is indeed trying to be a non-profit or a non-government organisation (NGO), and if this is a philanthropic move as it claims, why has it not registered as an NGO? Both these factors combined clearly says they have a commercial interest in India,” said Pahwa.

Early this week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) directed Reliance Communications, Facebook’s only telecom partner for Free Basics in India, to suspend services till it took a call. The social network is prodding its 130 million Indian users to send an email to the telecom regulator supporting Free Basics.

“What many governments decided was that zero rating could be bad if it harms competition, but it isn’t in all cases because it can benefit consumers. That’s why they’re looking at zero rating ‘case-by-case’ and we agree with that view,” said Daniels. “So if we’re willing to have a regulator look at Free Basics if there is real harm happening (i.e. ‘case-by-case’) to anyone including people, operators and developers, then to me, it is entirely consistent with net neutrality as defined by many nations.”

The Facebook executive admitted that it renamed its earlier campaign — internet.org to Free Basics following outrage in India.

“India has been the outlier and more challenging. Other countries have embraced Free Basics with open arms. Have a look at the president of the Philippines and his recent support on his Facebook page for the programme,” said Daniels.



FIGHT FOR FREEDOM

What is Free Basics?
  • Earlier known as internet.org, Free Basics is Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s petproject to provide a few basic internet services without charge, charging for others
  • It aims to work with governments, communities and companies to connect the underprivileged of developing nations to the immense possibilities of internet. But it has come under loud criticism from Microsoft, Truecaller and a host of Indian start-ups for eschewing principles of “net neutrality”
Benefits
  • Could bring more first-time internet users on board
  • Better visibility and market access for app developers
  • Possible free access to e-governance services
Concerns
  • Preferential nature defies net neutrality.
  • Zero-rating principle divides the notion of digital equality
  • Facebook can access partner app developers’ customer data

First Published: Sat, December 26 2015. 23:39 IST
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