Zuckerberg fuels Free Basics vs net neutrality debate in India

New Delhi, Dec 29 (IANS) First splashy full page ads in major Indian newspapers and now a personal piece by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a leading English daily defending Free Basics, the war over “free” or “selective” internet services for the poor and net neutrality has entered a new phase.

“Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India. Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality,” Zuckerberg wrote in his opinion piece on Monday in the Times of India, defending his ambitious initiative to provide a pre-selected suite of internet services to those who can’t afford it.

“There’s no valid basis for denying people the choice to use Free Basics, and that’s what thousands of people across India have chosen to tell the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over the last few weeks,” he added.

On Tuesday, Nikhil Pahwa, a volunteer with savetheinternet.in, wrote a counterpoint in the same daily against Zuckerberg’s appeal to save Free Basics.

“Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around a hundred sites (including a personal blog and a real estate company homepage, while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web,” he asked the Facebook founder.

Users who log on to their Facebook accounts are greeted with a message: “Act Now to Save Free Basics in India. Send a message to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and tell them you support Free Basics in India.”

Some users are even receiving “notifications” from friends: “sending messages to TRAI about Free Basics.”

TRAI has announced a Wednesday deadline for public’s response on Free Basics while people can go to the online portal savetheinternet.in to register support for net neutrality.

For those who are yet to be part of the ongoing debate, Free Basics is an app that gives users selective access to services like communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information — all without data charges.

On the other hand, “net neutrality” means that governments and internet service providers treat all data on the internet equally and, therefore, not differentially charge users, content, platforms, sites, applications or mode of communication.

Facebook rechristened its free internet platform internet.org — which it developed in conjunction with Reliance Communications Network — as Free Basics in September.

According to Facebook, it has been able to offer Free Basics services to a billion people across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

According to Pahwa, India is expected to have 500 million internet users by the end of 2017. “What kind of an internet they get access to is important for our country. This is why the battle for Net Neutrality, with the last and current TRAI consultations included, is the battle for our Internet Freedom,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, a post on “Save Free Basics in India” Facebook page read: “Free Basics is in danger in India. A small, vocal group of critics are lobbying to have Free Basics banned on the basis of net neutrality.”

It says that “instead of giving people access to some basic internet services for free, they demand that people pay equally to access all internet services — even if that means one billion people can’t afford to access any services.”

Asked about net neutrality and Internet.org, Zuckerberg said during his recent visit to India in November that the Free Basics platform aims to solve three problems of connecting to the internet — availability, affordability and awareness.

He said “Free Basics programme under the Internet.org initiative aims to connect the next billion people. It does not intend to harm anyone — neither the consumers nor the operators”.

He reiterated India’s importance as a market for Facebook and said nearly 250 million of the targeted next billion will come from India.

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