Amidst all the controversy that’s raging in India regarding net neutrality and how Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ (formerly internet.org) initiative allegedly violates the principle, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of the social network has now come out strongly in support of his company and its fledgling venture to provide free limited internet access to people in the world’s second most populous country and beyond. Through an opinion piece published in the The Times of India, Mr. Marc Zuckerberg has announced in no uncertain terms that the Free Basics program is here to stay. The scheme has been facing severe criticism from individuals and organizations who claim that it is in direct violation of the principles of net neutrality, which state that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content on the web, regardless of the source, content or protocol, without favoring any particular application, service or website.
The op-ed from Mr. Zuckerberg, titled “Free Basics Protects Net Neutrality”, comes in the wake of the Telecom Regulatory Authority in India (TRAI) issuing a cease and desist notice to Reliance Communications – the only ISP in the country to be offering Free Basics – asking it to temporarily shut off access to Facebook’s free internet service till it comes out with a verdict either way. In the article, Mr Zuckerberg expresses his “surprise” at the amount of upheaval a free service has generated in the country, which currently has the second highest number of internet users after China and ahead of the US. He argues that people clamoring for net neutrality are actually doing the country’s poor a disservice by trying to stop the free service. He even goes so far as to accuse net neutrality advocates of spreading “false claims” to attain their own objectives, “even if it means leaving a billion people behind”. He goes on to say that denying Free Basics to the poor around the world is tantamount to perpetuating the digital divide between the haves and the have nots.
However, Mr. Zuckerberg and his zero-rated internet service have critics who’ll be hard to swat away with newspaper articles. Amongst those who’ve publicly spoken out against such zero-rating initiatives, is Mr. Tim Berners-Lee – the man widely credited as being the inventor of the World Wide Web. According to him, “Economic discrimination is just as harmful as technical discrimination, so internet service providers will still be able to pick winners and losers online (if such zero-rated services are allowed to function unabated)”. However, such earnest concerns from the knowledgeable lot seem not to have deterred Mr. Zuckerberg in his fledgling endeavor. The Free Basics program has now gone live in over thirty countries worldwide, and currently reaches more than a billion people as per claims by the social networking giant. Whichever way the cookie crumbles in India, net neutrality continues to be a relevant issue not just in the South Asian country, but worldwide, including the US, where T-Mobile’s ‘Binge On’ and other such services from various ISPs worldwide have increasingly come under the scanner from net neutrality advocates and federal regulators.