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India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg met in California on Sunday. (Screenshot)

As Tech Giants Meet With Modi, India's Poor Search for Real Internet Access

Net neutrality advocates criticize Facebook's continuing venture into internet grabs in developing countries

Nadia Prupis

While tech giants praised a high-profile meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Menlo Park, California on Sunday, net neutrality advocates took the occasion to criticize Facebook's controversial venture into internet access for developing countries.

Facebook recently rebranded its initiative after receiving backlash from consumer advocates who said it violated net neutrality rules by only allowing users free access to a small number of curated websites, including Facebook.

Despite renaming the venture to Free Basics, criticism of the program—which has launched in 18 countries—remains strong.

Even with a shift away from its misleading philanthropic title, the program's aims remain disingenuous. "Facebook has finally stopped trying to pretend that this is an effort at philanthropy by correctly calling it by Facebook and not which neither had the internet nor the org," Mishi Choudhary, executive director of the India-based Software Freedom Law Center, said on Tuesday.

"In countries like India, [net neutrality] is more about cost of access than speed of access: all lanes are slow," Choudhary said.

As The Hindu pointed out on Tuesday, not one question during Zuckerberg and Modi's 45-minute Q&A broached the topic of net neutrality.

Critics have also noted that by routing online traffic through partner organizations, Facebook would be able to sweep up user data and give itself ownership over images and videos posted through the program.

That means "the poor will be comprehensively surveilled by Facebook, losing any shred of personal privacy, while the rich using the real Internet do not route all their traffic through Facebook," Choudhary said.

As the LA Times explains:

In India, while more than 8 million are gaining Internet access every month, more than 800 million people are still without it, according to industry figures. With Facebook under constant pressure to show it can grow beyond its 1.5 billion worldwide users, India represents a potential gold mine – which perhaps explains why Zuckerberg has aggressively courted Modi since the Indian leader took office in May 2014.

Moreover, according to Facebook's own data, only 20 percent of Free Basics users in India are reaching the web for the first time, which contradicts the company's claims that the venture aims to provide service to communities without internet access.

As Hrush Bhatt, founder of—a travel company that pulled its partnership from following the net neutrality backlash—told the LA Times on Monday, "It's disingenuous for Facebook to do this in the name of providing connectivity."

"If they really want to provide connectivity, why not give out phones or provide subsidies for data plans?" Bhatt said.

Choudhary continued, "The poor deserve the same sanitation, health care, drinking water, primary and secondary education, and network communications as the rich... Fair regulatory pricing of telecommunications tariffs in India would allow the Indian poor access to data service, as they now have access to mobile telephony, at prices they can afford."

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