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The selection process for the market's third operator was a spectacle to behold
Mark Zuckerberg’s bid to connect the unconnected via Internet.org is already facing its first major roadblock – not from cellcos, but from internet companies and activist groups who claim Internet.org’s business model violates net neutrality principles and creates a walled garden of content for poor people rather than the “real” internet.
The latest flashpoint is India, where Internet.org has partnered with Reliance and Bharti Airtel to offer free internet access to specific apps for free, with the data usage subsidized by apps developers.
But in April, some Indian internet companies dropped out of Internet.org because the data subsidies amount to paying cellcos a fee to be included in the Internet.org package, which they say is a violation of net neutrality principles. Activist groups have joined in, accusing Facebook of not only violating net neutrality principles with Internet.org, but also effectively creating a separate walled-off faux-internet that will widen the digital divide instead of narrow it.
Ironically, India doesn’t even have any regulations regarding net neutrality – yet. But it will. Telecoms regulator TRAI kicked off a public consultation in March on net neutrality. And last week, according to Times Of India, a preliminary inquiry conducted by India’s telecom ministry concluded that Reliance and Airtel's Internet.org plans do violate the spirit of net neutrality.
Facebook has heard the net-neutrality/poor-man's-internet criticisms pretty much since Day 1 of Internet.org's debut app. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg defended Internet.org’s business model (again) in a Facebook post last month, arguing that universal connectivity and net neutrality are not mutually exclusive:
To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes -- and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.
Zuckerberg has also argued elsewhere that net neutrality has to be implemented differently when it comes to connecting the unconnected, reports Wired:
“As we’re having this debate, remember the people this affects most: the 4 billion unconnected have no voice on the internet. They can’t argue their side in the comments below or sign a petition for what they believe, so we decide our character and how we look out for them.”
He does raise a fair question: does someone who is getting online for the first time – and experiencing the benefits therein – really care if the service doesn't conform 100% to pure Internet ideology?
Still, Zuckerberg shouldn't be too surprised. A similar debate arose in the US last year when AT&T introduced sponsored data plans, which utilizes a similar business model to Internet.org. Pro-neutrality groups also blasted that move as a violation of net neutrality.
Meanwhile, India isn’t the only market where Internet.org has stirred up controversy, at least in terms of its business model, if not the net neutrality debate.
In Indonesia, XL Axiata – which originally partnered with Facebook during Internet.org’s research phase in 2014 – decided to break off from the project in part because of the issues raised in India, and partly because of concerns over the business model and doubts that it creates a platform to upsell users to paid services, according to Tech In Asia. However, the report adds, Indosat – which launched Internet.org services in April – has said it does see upsell potential in the project.
It will be interesting to see if Indosat and other cellcos participating in Internet.org feel the same way this time next year.
For the record, Facebook claims that Internet.org has signed on 800,000 Internet.org users in India since February, 20% of whom have never before subscribed to a mobile data service. Facebook also says Internet.org has connected over nine million people to the internet since last year.
You can read Facebook’s myriad responses to Internet.org critics here.