People across India are crying foul at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's scheme to bring internet "Free Basics" to the South Asian country, and the multi-billionaire is not happy about it.
In an op-ed published Monday in the Times of India, Zuckerberg lashed out at those raising the alarm over an initiative they say violates the principles of net neutrality and allows the social networking giant to capture India's internet.
Striking a sanctimonious tone, Zuckerberg compared critics of Free Basics to opponents of "free, basic health care," libraries, and public education. "The data is clear. Free Basics is a bridge to the full internet and digital equality," Zuckerberg wrote. "If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services."
"In the ultimate Orwellian doublespeak, 'free' for Zuckerberg means 'privatized,' a far cry from privacy — a word Zuckerberg does not believe in."
—Vandana Shiva, philosopher, environmental activist, eco-feminist
"Surprisingly, over the last year there's been a big debate about this in India," the Facebook CEO continued. "What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?"
But activists, regulators, and ordinary people across India say there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the program—which partners with mobile service providers to allow access to some websites without payment for data, but only through the Facebook system.
Nikhil Pahwa, an organizer with Save the Internet-India, raised the question earlier this week in the Times of India: "Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around a hundred sites (including a personal blog and a real estate company homepage), while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?"
According to Save the Internet, the program simply allows Facebook to capture India's market—already Facebook's second largest in the world. "Facebook doesn't pay for Free Basics, telecom operators do," the advocacy group wrote earlier this week. "Where do they make money from? From users who pay."
But according to Vandana Shiva—a philosopher, environmental activist, and eco-feminist—the reality is even more sinister. Reliance Communications, the Indian company partnering with Facebook on the program, "obtained land for its rural cell phone towers from the government of India and grabbed land from farmers for [special economic zones] through violence and deceit," Shiva wrote earlier this week. "As a result and at no cost, Reliance has a huge rural, semi-urban and suburban user base — especially farmers."
"In the ultimate Orwellian doublespeak, 'free' for Zuckerberg means 'privatized,' a far cry from privacy — a word Zuckerberg does not believe in," Shiva continued. "And like corporate-written 'free' trade agreements, Free Basics is anything but free for citizens. It is an enclosure of the commons, which are 'commons' because they guarantee access to the commoner, whether it be seed, water, information or internet."
According to Save the Internet, "Free Basics isn't about bringing people online. It’s about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything else remains paid. Users who pay for Internet access can still access Free Basics for free, giving Facebook and its partners an advantage. Free Basics is a violation of net neutrality."
In a country that has seen hundreds of thousands of people mobilize to protect net neutrality, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently ordered Reliance to halt services while the body investigates potential net neutrality violations. The regulator is nearing the end of a public consultation period which commenced in March.
"Why has Facebook chosen the current model for Free Basics, which gives users a selection of around a hundred sites (including a personal blog and a real estate company homepage), while rejecting the option of giving the poor free access to the open, plural and diverse web?"
—Nikhil Pahwa, Save the Internet-India
In his op-ed, Zuckerberg directly appealed to Indians to pressure the TRAI to abandon its concerns.
Criticism, however, will not be easy to quell, as it spans the globe. As Jeremy Gillula of the U.S.-based group Electronic Frontier Foundation recently pointed out, this set-up puts Facebook "in a privileged position to monitor its users' traffic, and allows it to act as gatekeeper (or, depending on the situation, censor)."
While Facebook has taken small steps to address concerns over privacy and application criteria for websites to participate, Gillula argues that, effectively, Free Basics is "still a walled garden."
Zuckerberg, who has visited India twice and was recently photographed embracing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appears poised to continue his fight to promote—and spread—Free Basics.
The outcome of the coming battle has global implications, as the Facebook moves to spread the program—initially dubbed Internet.org—across the globe despite widespread concerns. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook has already partnered on the program with over 35 mobile operators in more than 30 countries.
"India is expected to have 500 million Internet users by the end of 2017, and what kind of an Internet they get access to is important for our country," wrote Pahwa of Save the Internet. "This is why the battle for Net Neutrality, with the last and current TRAI consultations included, is the battle for our internet freedom."