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Facebook's free Internet service bashed in India

Facebook says its Free Basics service gives Internet access to people who otherwise couldn't afford it. Critics say the service helps only Facebook.

Facebook's Free Basics is a package of Internet services for regions where Net access is limited.

Mark Zuckerberg's proposal to provide free, basic Internet service in India has hit an old-fashioned snag: People don't believe they're getting something for nothing.

On Wednesday, dozens of Internet rights groups criticized Facebook, Zuck's company, for making "disingenuous" claims about opposition to the Free Basics plan, which promises to give India's rural poor access to the social network and a limited number of other online services. In an open letter, the groups say Free Basics violates the principles of Net neutrality and provides only "partial access to the Internet."

"If you think access to the Internet is a right like access to health care and clean drinking water," reads the letter, spearheaded by US-based digital advocacy group Access Now, "then Facebook should support affordable access to the entire Internet for everyone, not access only to those services that Facebook or its partners deem acceptable."

The back-and-forth highlights the complexity of providing Internet access, now considered a human-rights issue. In India, the debate has focused largely on whether Free Basics meets the standards of Net neutrality, the principle that there should be equal access to all types of content and services on the Internet.

At issue is whether Free Basics benefits India's poor, who might otherwise not get Net access, or just Facebook. The world's largest social network has partnered with Indian carrier Reliance to deliver the service. The result has been a battle of words over the last month between Facebook and critics of the service, which is already available in 36 countries.

Most Indians want the free service, Facebook claimed, citing a national poll in which 86 percent of respondents supported Free Basics. It also said the service can coexist with Net neutrality.

"Those who aren't connected want inexpensive, innovative new opportunities to come online," a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement Thursday. "Regulators around the world who have looked at this issue have concluded that these types of programs can exist alongside strong Net neutrality rules."

The letter follows an opinion piece defending Free Basics written by Zuckerberg and published last month in the Times of India, the country's largest newspaper. Zuckerberg compared free but limited Internet service to access to libraries and hospitals. While libraries "don't contain every book," he wrote, "they still provide a world of good."

Indian regulators in late December requested that Facebook halt Free Basics until it turned over more information about the terms of the program.

Facebook has reportedly been running an aggressive campaign in India, its largest market after the US, with 132 million users. The Menlo Park, California-based company ran full-page newspaper ads touting Free Basics and asked users to email the country's Telecom Regulatory Authority of India saying they support the service, according to The Economist. The TRAI has been exploring whether mobile operators should be allowed to charge different rates for data based on the websites and applications serving it up, a key factor in how Free Basics works.

Facebook created Free Basics to provide Internet services on topics such as news, maternal health, local jobs and local government information. It already provided those services as part of its initiative, launched in 2014, in many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America where online access has been limited or nonexistent.