NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP

India Rejects Facebook’s ‘Free’ Internet

Facebook says Free Basics is philanthropic. Critics says it’s an ‘evil’ way to get more Facebook users.

02.09.16 5:15 PM ET

Facebook has been trying to sell its idea of free Internet to India for a year. On Monday, India turned it down—but Mark Zuckerberg is not taking no for an answer.

In a press release Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) announced that it has prohibited a practice known as zero-rating, or the offering of select applications or Internet services at no cost. First under the name Internet.org, then as Free Basics from Internet.org, Facebook has been offering a zero-rated service in developing portions of India through smartphone carriers since last February.

But Facebook’s presence in the country has been greeted with significant pushback from digital rights groups and Indian net neutrality advocates from the start.

Advocates of net neutrality say that, by selecting the applications and services made available, zero-rated initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics give private companies too much control over which parts of the Internet people see and use, and which they don’t.

Free Basics, for example, is not really “free Internet”; it includes low-data versions of Facebook and other services from independent developers that must be submitted to Facebook for review. And a company like Facebook, critics argue, may have a vested interest in introducing the developing world to the Internet through its own front door.

The Silicon Valley social media giant, on the other hand, has long tried to position the service as a philanthropic one. Last September, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg teamed up with Bono for a New York Times op-ed, calling for the tech world to “do far more for those most marginalized, those trapped in poverty, and those beyond or on the edge of the network.” Prominently mentioned, of course, was Facebook’s push for “global connectivity” under Internet.org.

But making Free Basics seem charitable has been a hard sell for Facebook. In May of last year, startup investor Mahesh Murthy bluntly called Facebook’s free Internet initiative “evil,” saying that it is “just about acquiring folks from the bottom of the pyramid as Facebook users.”

In an open letter, digital rights groups claimed that Facebook was “building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.” To naysayers, the motivation seemed clear: Facebook was in the market for, well, a new market—and India, with its billion-plus people, was top on the list.

Facebook, however, has long claimed that Internet.org and Free Basics are not motivated by money, writing in a press release last year, “If revenue were the goal, Facebook would have focused resources on markets where online advertising is already thriving.”

Unconvinced, Indian Internet users have protested Internet.org and Free Basics for months, until TRAI temporarily blocked it last December.

Despite this resistance, Facebook has devoted considerable resources to its relationship with the Indian government, and to convincing the Indian public that Free Basics is indeed a social good. Over the past year, Mark Zuckerberg has added an Indian flag overlay to his profile picture, met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and published on op-ed in The Times of India. In that same time frame, Facebook has spent a sizable amount of money advertising Free Basics in India, even launching an online petition asking its users to tell TRAI that they support the service.

It was enough to raise the question: If Free Basics was truly about helping the poor, why did it have to be sold so aggressively?

Now that TRAI has given Free Basics and other zero-rated services the boot, one might think that Facebook would take a step back, lest it appear too eager to court a country that has already turned its global initiative down. Not so.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company was “disappointed with the outcome,” adding that “we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

Zuckerberg also wrote a lengthy Facebook post on Monday saying that the company is “disappointed” but will continue to work on the problem of Internet connectivity in India.

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“Connecting India is an important goal we won’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the Internet,” he wrote. “We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs, and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them.”

Prominent tech blogger Anil Dash was quick to comment on Zuck’s post, noting that his family comes from one of the poorest regions of India.

“At a broad level, it might be useful to really, really reckon with the history of western corporate powers enforcing their desires on a broad swath of the Indian population, especially India’s poorest,” he suggested. “There are things that India, Indians (and those of us in the diaspora) place a very high value on, for historical reasons, that should be obvious with some thought. A colonialist ‘Trust us, it’s for your own benefit’ pitch is a hard sell with good reason.”

And in response to Zuckerberg’s assertive pledge to connect India, Dash asked the billionaire one question: “What about pausing the [Free Basics] effort and spending some time on a real effort to listen to Indian voices about what would help them have connectivity on their own terms, in a way they find acceptable?”