What has happened?
Regulators in India have effectively blocked “Free Basics”, Facebook’s signature project aiming to bring free basic internet services to phone users.
Free Basics is a key pillar of Facebook’s ambitious Internet.org programme, which is looking to deliver the internet to billions of people around the world.
Facebook works in partnership with local telecommunications companies in 35 countries to offer a free and text-only version of Facebook. Users benefit by receiving news, health and employment services which they can presently not access.
India has 130 million Facebook users, out of a population of more than 1.2 billion people. The country has more Facebook users than any country in the world – bar the United States – and Internet.org boasts one million members in India. Facebook hopes that once the recipients of Free Basics are hooked, they will be encouraged to pay for data services, allowing for a fuller internet experience.
“We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who don’t have the Internet,” he said at the time. “The people who aren’t on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for more access to the Internet.”
Critics in India and elsewhere have said that by offering a free but limited package, Facebook and its telecommunications partners are violating the principle of net neutrality.
In India, Free Basics offers free internet searches using Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Google searches can be completed only after a charge is incurred.
Critics have also argued that Zuckerberg is creating a “walled off” version of the internet, in an effort to lure Indian consumers into paying for extra services from Facebook.
In opposition so far, a million Indians rallied to an organisation called Save The Internet.
“On the open Internet, everyone is equal. On Internet.org, Facebook is the kingmaker,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, an Indian news site, who vociferously opposed Internet.org. Pahwa also helped to organise the campaign for Save the Internet.
In truth, the company’s attempt to launch Free Basics has encountered a series of setbacks in India.
The plan faced stiff opposition from net neutrality advocates, questions from Indian telecommunications regulators and a botched marketing campaign from Facebook\s Indian telecommunications partner, Reliance.
The controversy over zero-rated services
Free internet services, otherwise known as zero-rated services, have faced controversy elsewhere.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission in the US sent letters requesting information from AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile about services that allow users free access to certain streaming video services.
The FCC argued that it wanted to understand whether the free access conflicted with issues of net neutrality.