In April 2015, Facebook found itself embroiled in the Net Neutrality debate taking place in India. Although India boasts the world’s third-largest population of internet users, the country lacks laws around Net Neutrality.
*Net Neutrality is the principle that service providers should provide equal access to content on the internet, regardless of source.
In December 2014, Indian netizens had criticized telecom provider Airtel for charging a higher fee for services like Skype, LINE and Whatsapp. This prompted Indian authorities to develop laws around Net Neutrality, which they introduced to the public in early 2015 – at around the same time that Facebook launched Internet.org.
*Internet.org is a partnership among seven tech companies, to bring affordable access to the internet to those in developing countries.
How Internet.org works in India
Facebook launched Internet.org in India in partnership with telecom provider Reliance. This makes it possible for people in eight states to access select websites for free – if they have a Reliance mobile connection.
To access these sites, they can connect through the Internet.org Android app, or through internet.org on their mobile browser. People who try to access the sites directly, without going through an Internet.org touch point would be charged for their data consumption.
The choice of websites is limited and doesn’t reflect the nation’s most popular sites. For example, for search, internet.org only covers access to Bing, and for shopping only OLX.
Facebook’s intent was to help connect poor people to the internet. But the details of the program didn’t match up. Neither did the communication around it.
See image below: Facebook’s global Internet.org initiative (top) versus Reliance’s Internet.org for India (bottom).
“Stop VIP culture on the Internet”
Indians netizens, who were already part of a grassroots movement to create awareness around Net Neutrality, were not impressed with Facebook’s Internet.org.
Ethan Zuckerman, internet activist and director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, summarizes the problem with Internet.org:
“If Facebook were donating millions or billions to upgrade infrastructure – or even to lobby mobile phone carriers for cheaper data services for all – it would be less troubling. But instead, they’re offering a limited version of the internet, one that centers on Facebook, to low-income internet users.
That raises real concerns that this is not a charitable effort, but a customer acquisition strategy.”
Internet.org’s limited scope posed a challenge for competing service providers and web-based start ups, giving an unfair advantage to members of Internet.org. It would create fast-lanes for select websites and prevent fair competition – especially devastating for new entrants to the market. And Airtel’s repeated effort to make Indians pay more for popular services threatened all netizens’ freedom to access the internet.
As a result of these initiatives, and the Indian authorities’ April 24 deadline for feedback on the new policies, the Save the Internet movement grew stronger.
Power of the Save the Internet movement
In addition to on-ground protests, here’s what the movement achieved:
- 336,000 people signed the petition online
- Comedy group AIB’s video on Net Neutrality amassed nearly 3 million views
- One million people wrote to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India
- Leading brands Cleartrip and Flipkart pulled out of the Internet.org initiative
The movement even prompted Mark Zuckerberg to post a response in defense of Internet.org, which has opened up a new angle to the debate:
Can Internet.org and Net Neutrality co-exist?
“Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.”
Judging from the comments on his widely-viewed post, we’d say there are a lot of polarizing views, and a lot of work to be done to find an acceptable middle ground. To quote the Chief Minister of Indian state Odisha:
“While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”
This post is a part of our People’s Insights Monthly Brief for May, Tech Innovation – Friend or Foe?