The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has made an announcement saying its Internet.org service, which aims to bring internet services to the developing world, will be open to all.
Internet.org has been criticised in India for offering customers free access to a number of pared-down internet services, including Facebook.
But activists say it is unfair and runs against the idea of net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the internet equally.
This means no user, content, website, application or device should be discriminated against or charged differently.
In February this year, US authorities stopped internet providers there from giving consumers faster access to certain websites if the website paid them a fee.
In India speed is not so much the issue; instead it is cost.
In February this year Facebook’s Internet.org launched its free app in India. Having struck a deal with mobile operators, the smartphone app lets people access certain pared-down sites without any data charges.
These include Facebook, Wikipedia and a number of international and local news sites.
“To give more people access to the Internet, it is useful to offer some services for free. If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all,” Mark Zukerberg, Facebook founder, wrote in an Indian newspaper.
Activist complained that Internet.org participants are getting an unfair advantage over competing services.
They say this would make it difficult for new startups to fairly challenge well-established services.
“It makes telecom operators more powerful in deciding who gets more audience on the internet,” says Nikil Pahwa, part of the activist group SavetheInternet.in.
“Whoever decides what becomes free wins. We don’t think that’s a fair proposition given that there are millions of services online.”
Facebook has now responded to the criticism by saying it will open up their free platform to all developers provided their services run on cheaper feature phones as well as more powerful smartphones.
They must not be data-intensive.
This prevents them from offering videos or high-resolution photos or voice and video chats, and they must encourage the use of paid services on the internet, a requirement that helps mobile operators recover the cost of the free service.
“Do we connect that fisherman in India now?” asks Zuckerberg in a video statement on Monday.
“Do we … connect their loved ones and their whole communities too? Or do we shut them out and tell them they have to wait until they can afford to pay for it themselves?”
Campaigners against the service say the changes don’t go far enough.
Pahwa says the Facebook initiative is an attempt to control the access of millions new users and what happens in India will have a global impact.
“It’s not philanthropy,” he says.
“It isn’t giving people access to the internet. It’s giving people access to only Facebook and a few other sites. This a move by Facebook to become even more dominant.
“It’s a very dangerous thing for the entire world, not just India, because Facebook is not the internet. The internet is millions of sites and we must preserve that diversity.”