Why India snubbed Facebook's free Internet offer

The social media giant wanted to give the people of India free access to a chunk of the Internet, but the people weren't interested.

Mark Zuckerberg's ambitious mission to provide free Internet access to rural India was rejected by the people it was intended to help long before the country's regulators banned it earlier this month.

Around the country, farmers, labourers and office workers scorned Facebook's offer. Called Free Basics, it provided only limited access to the Internet through a suite of websites and services that, unsurprisingly, included Facebook. They felt the limited service didn't follow the open nature of the Internet, where all sites and online destinations should be equally accessible, so they organized real-world protests and an online Save The Internet campaign, with the message that Zuckerberg's efforts weren't welcome.

You might think people would jump at the opportunity to access Facebook for free, especially since more than a billion people use the social network every day. But it's that hitch -- that they can't access everything else -- which is precisely the problem, said Sunil Abraham, the executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society India. "Even if somebody spends 90 percent of their time on Facebook, that 10 percent is equally as important."

Indian PM Narendra Modi speaking at Facebook's headquarters last September.

Facebook

Indian regulators sided with popular opinion and cut off Free Basics in the world's second-most populous country on February 8. The ruling by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) forbids all zero-rating plans, meaning anyone offering customers free access to only a limited set of services of sites are banned. It was championed as a victory for Net neutrality, the principle that everyone should have equal access to all content on the Internet.

The decision was undoubtedly a blow for Facebook, which says it wants to connect the billions of have-nots around the world to the Internet through the program. While more than half the world's online population uses Facebook each month, the company's efforts to connect with the developing world -- with Free Basics also being available in over 30 other countries, such as Kenya and Iraq -- could be a boon for business.

"[The Internet] must remain neutral for everyone, individuals and businesses alike. Everyone must have equal access to it," said Rajesh Sawhney, a Mumbai-based tech entrepreneur, in support of TRAI's decision to reject Free Basics. He believes the zero-rating scheme can be misused by telcos and other companies to create divisive ecosystems, where certain brands or companies are included and others aren't.

The package wasn't without its supporters though, with some being disappointed with the government's intervention in the marketplace.

"It is generally assumed that there is something sinister behind violations of Net neutrality...but that is not always true," says software engineer Shashank Mehra. "ISPs trying to match consumer demand isn't something sinister, it is a market process."

The social media giant further defends itself by pointing out that Free Basics is open to any and all developers, including competitors Twitter and Google, as long as they meet the program's technical standards. This evidently wasn't enough to convince much of India.

The problem persists

Facebook disputes claims that its interest in India is commercial, saying its efforts are humanitarian. In speeches over the past few months, Zuckerberg has painted Internet access as a tool for global good. "The research has shown on this that for every 10 people who get access to the internet, about one person gets a new job, and about one person gets lifted out of poverty," he said at a Townhall Q&A in Delhi last October. "Connecting things in India is one of the most important things we can do in the world."

Zuckerberg appears to have taken the loss in stride. During a keynote address at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona earlier this week, he admitted to being disappointed by the ruling, but added, "We are going to focus on different programs [in India]...we want to work with all the operators there." A Facebook spokesperson said the company "will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunity it brings."

Those ideals could certainly help in India, where around 68 percent of its population -- about 880 million people -- live in rural conditions or poverty. The promise of free access to health, education, local and national news through an Internet connection could potentially improve quality of live. So what's the problem?

The service providers would also be granting free Facebook.

Peggy Wolff, a volunteer coordinator at education NGO Isha Vidhya, says Facebook is just the latest in a long line of international companies hoping to crack rural India, where the bulk of the country's poor live.

While admitting that low cost or free Internet is imperative in rural areas, that "smart villages" are needed to help ease the human burden on India's increasingly overcrowded cities, she says, "Free basics is just a bit suspicious to most people. There's just too much vested interest."

"The big question." Sawhney says, "is how do we give fast and free Internet to a large section of society in India?"

There are alternatives. United States-based Jana, for instance, developed an Android app called mCent that allows its growing userbase of 30 million to earn data by downloading and using certain apps or watching advertisements from sponsors. Unlike Free Basics, that data can be expended on any online destination.

Jana's CEO Nathan Eagle, like Zuckerberg, says his mission is to bring Internet connectivity to the next billion people. "Today, Internet connectivity in emerging markets is much more an issue of affordability, rather than access," he explains. "1.3 billion people in emerging markets now have Android phones...it's the cost of data that is prohibitive."

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