Technology

Fight Heats up Over Facebook Service in India

Internet rights groups say Facebook has made unfounded attacks on those "who have fought, and who continue to fight, for Net Neutrality."
Katie Kuehner-HebertJanuary 8, 2016

Internet rights groups have accused Facebook of making “unfounded and divisive attacks” on critics of its program to bring low-end Web service to India’s rural poor.

Since Indian regulators in late December requested that Facebook halt Free Basics until it turned over more information about the terms of the program, the social media giant has been trying to drum up support for the initiative.

Facebook has partnered with Indian carrier Reliance to deliver Free Basics, which offers free access to a limited number of websites, including Facebook, for users who do not pay for mobile data plans.

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In an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Internet rights groups criticized the company for its “recent attacks on the millions of internet users in India and around the world who have fought, and who continue to fight, for Net Neutrality.”

“Rather than create digital equality … Facebook’s Free Basics program risks exacerbating digital inequality,” the letter said, adding that “At most, the world’s poorest people get partial access to the internet.”

“If you think access to the internet is a right like access to health care and clean drinking water, 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 groups said.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNET that most Indians want the service, citing a national poll in which 86% 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,” the spokesperson said. “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 Menlo Park, Calif. 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.

“The stakes in India are high for Facebook: The outcome of this battle may shape the fate of founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project in dozens of smaller countries around the world,” Forbes said.