Facebook’s Free Internet Access Program in Developing Countries Provokes Backlash

25 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Free Basics by Facebook’ replaces Internet.org website and app.

While we all know the recursions of Facebook’s free Internet.org for all that faced criticism in India, looks like the social network hasn’t given up on it yet.A few months ago, Facebook opened up the Internet.org platform to developers after being accused of violating net neutrality rules, mostly by users in India.Facebook, which has been facing criticism from some quarters in India for its Internet.org service, has renamed its free Internet platform as the Free Basics app.Using certain carriers’ networks, users with data-enabled feature phones can access a special site through built-in mobile browsers, while smartphones running on Google Inc.’s Android operating system can download a special app from the Play store.

Now, Zuckerberg’s project has added 60 new services created by third-party developers, including BabyCenter for pregnancy and parenting info and SmartBusiness for novice entrepreneurs. The app and web platform, providing access to over 250 services, is now live in 19 countries including India and will be part of the “larger objectives” of Internet.org.

The announcement was made at Facebook Headquarters in Melbo Park, Califormnia by VP of Internet.org Chris Daniels in the presence of a small group of Indian journalists. Since it has undergone quite an overhaul, it has also been renamed to “Free Basics by Facebook” to distinguish it from the larger Internet.org initiative. Chris Daniels, vice-president of Internet.org, said the idea was to create a “differentiation” from the wider objectives of Internet.org. “We want to give people access to a few free basics services on the Internet and we know they will quickly understand the value of the Internet,” he said during an interaction at Facebook’s new office in Menlo Park. Interestingly, the announcement comes days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s town hall with Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the sprawling new campus. In a post a few hours later, Zuckerberg said Facebook has “listened to feedback from the community” and made “significant improvements to Internet.org”. “Connectivity is not and end in itself.

In countries like India and Indonesia, which are among Facebook’s fastest-growing markets, some users are not happy about the selection of websites that are available on the platform. Zuckerberg has also written a post stating how a soybean farmer from rural Maharashtra ‘makes better parenting decisions by accessing expert advice through the BabyCenter app for free through Internet.org.’ He further talks about the ‘improvements’ and the platform being ‘open to all developers’. “We’ve improved the security and privacy of Internet.org. In India, the net neutrality debate and massive public outrage had made many take sides, and some big names like NDTV, Cleartrip and some properties of Times Group decided to part ways with Internet.org as a result. Net neutrality “is an important factor in our fight to preserve an open and healthy Internet” in Indonesia, said Donny Budi Utoyo, chairman of Jakarta-based Internet watchdog group ICT Watch.

You’ll get to keep your current user name (as long as it doesn’t contain invalid characters, in which case you’ll have to go through a few extra steps to make the transfer), and all your old comments will eventually (not immediately) migrate with you. Since its India launch this May, Internet.org had come in for criticism for being a “walled garden” for its limited number of partners and single service provider.

Some digital rights group and users complain the program violates the principles of net neutrality –the notion that Internet providers shouldn’t pick and choose which websites consumers can access. Daniels said Facebook does not pay service providers for the data and “no money changes hands”. “The commercial benefit for service providers is that people move on to paid services soon,” he added. While Internet.org does not appear to violate net neutrality laws in the countries where it’s available, analysts said that the company wants to be seen as encouraging the open and free use of the Internet, not providing a limited slice of the web.

Among the new features in the FreeBasics app is the option for users on the app or the mobile web version to add the services which they want to add to their list of free services from the list of 250 plus partners. On reports that Facebook was the most used service on Internet.org, Daniels said it was only natural that the social networking service’s popularity would reflect even in this platform. Ime Archibong, director product partnerships, said the fact that over 30 new Indian partners have signed up shows how there were a lot of people passionate about the cause. Facebook lists the barriers to adoption of Internet as infrastructure, affordability and awareness and is experimenting with solar powered aircraft and terrestrial services to plug the gaps in connectivity across the world.

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