Facebook is facing significant pushback in India. The social network’s feel-good project, Internet.org, which aims to bring free online access to under-served regions around the world is losing support from media outlets and businesses in the name of something stateside activists and politicians have been fighting about for years: net neutrality.
The U.S.-bred passionate and divisive debate over internet providers potentially charging extra websites or treating all internet traffic equally has galvanized protesters in India, who disagree with the way tech companies have cozied up to local telecom companies to consumers’ detriment.
Protests started after major telecom company Bharti Airtel announced plans to offer a product that would charge mobile app creators for customers’ data usage. Instead of customers paying for their own data plans, the plan proposed, app makers would absorb the costs incurred by the internet carrier.
Open internet advocates in the country criticized the plan for lacking net neutrality: It favored more established app development companies that could afford to pay the fees, ultimately limiting what customers would be able to access online and stifling innovation.
That wave of criticism quickly made its way to Facebook’s Internet.org, which launched its app service in India in February, and partnering with Reliance Communications, a $3.4 billion Indian telecom company and internet service provider. Without getting charged for data use, Reliance Communications’ existing customers can use the app, which links them to a host of websites such as Wikipedia, ESPN for cricket coverage, BBC News, Facebook and Facebook Messenger, as well as other sites for news, health, weather and jobs.
Several businesses and media outlets have begun pulling out of Internet.org, citing the company’s sole partnership with the telecom juggernaut as having an unfair influence over who and what gets internet access. And if Bharti Airtel’s plan catches on, it could shape the kind of content people in the world’s third largest country can get.
So far, India’s largest media company, Times Group, has pulled services from the project, along with news channel NDTV, and online travel site Cleartrip.com. Flipkart, a major online retailer, also reneged on plans to partner with Bharti Airtel’s Zero initiative amid the protests.
Net neutrality isn’t a new concept in India, but the country doesn’t have any rules in place that regulate internet traffic, said Sanjeev Joshipura, who runs a U.S.-India focused business and public policy consulting firm in Washington, D.C. The issue has been talked about in the past, but the controversy with Bharti Airtel and Facebook has turned talk into a cause.
“It’s not that this issue is a new issue, it’s that people are more aware that it will impact them,” Joshipura said. The growing concern is having a situation where “control of the internet is put in the hands of a few companies, and that being detrimental to the Indian public. Given the animated public response in India, the net neutrality debate is here to stay. It’s not a passing fad where people hear about it today and forget about it tomorrow.”
The debate has gained traction on social media, in many ways, mirroring the yearlong tussle in the U.S. with the Federal Communications Commission, internet providers and consumers.
— Laziest creature (@NEverythin) April 16, 2015
— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) April 16, 2015
A deluge of more than 600,000 emails from consumers and petitions urging India’s telecom regulator, TRAI, have put pressure on the agency to reevaluate telecom companies’ relationship with content and service providers.
TRAI denounced Facebook and Bharti Airtel’s “zero data” plan for violating net neutrality. “From the looks of it, Airtel Zero and many other plans including Facebook’s Internet.org tie-up with Reliance Communications and the free WhatsApp, Facebook offers by other telcos seem to violate net neutrality,” a senior agency official told the Economic Times.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t specifically addressed the burgeoning issue in Internet.org’s flagship in the Asian market. But during a question and answer session with users Tuesday, Zuckerberg answered TechCrunch’s Josh Constine question that hinted at the issue, saying net neutrality was important but providing connectivity to people who otherwise wouldn’t have internet access is better than not having it all.
Zuckerberg also confirmed Internet.org’s primary mission as connecting everyone, starting with the most remote areas first through partnerships with governments and local internet providers.
But the nobility and necessity of Internet.org’s mission doesn’t absolve it from the ethical and practical problems that arise when big tech companies team up with big or bigger companies to get maximum exposure.
According to Bloomberg, Facebook’s partnership with India’s Reliance Communications doesn’t bar it from bringing other internet service providers (ISPs) on board Internet.org. But the exclusivity of it for the moment, coupled with the slim selection of websites, gives one of the country’s top ISPs influence over what consumers read.
Mobile devices are a growing and often preferred method of connecting to the internet, especially in regions that lack the infrastructure for traditional landlines for phone and internet access. Ninety-two percent of Indians don’t have access to a landline, and like many developing nations, internet use is most common among young, educated English speakers, according to a Pew Research survey.
Less than half of the world lives near a 3G signal, but the vast majority, 92 percent, live in range of a 2G signal, according to Facebook’s recent internet connectivity report. The latter connection can’t support voice of IP (VOIP) phone connections, listening to music or watching videos.
And if the goal is to expose internet to people who’ve never had it by giving them access to a handful of sites, those who were meant to be helped are harmed because the benevolent company has a financial stake, as in the case of Facebook, or passively restricts access to only bigger and richer entities that can pay extra fees, in the case of Bharti Airtel’s zero data plan.
Internet.org will almost certainly find multiple partners to support the app as the project expands. But the bigger concern lays with whether the few global tech companies can actually employ the same open and free internet experience abroad they’ve championed in the States with little compromise. India’s net neutrality revolution might be the perfect case study.