The quest for free internet in India: is it Facebook’s responsibility?

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Critics Still Doubt Facebook’s Free Internet Despite Changes.

Who can deny the cause for free internet access? This week, Facebook and its conspicuous founder rebooted the free app that provides (some) online access from mobile phones in 19 countries across the globe, dropping its old Internet.org moniker in the face of various complaints and rebranding it as “Free Basics by Facebook.” On Saturday, at the United Nations in New York, Zuckerberg will give two speeches on the importance of online communications in the developing world.Facebook, which has been facing criticism from some quarters in India for its Internet.org service, has opened up its free internet platform as the Free Basics app.From being just a social media platform, Facebook is transforming itself as an enabler of Internet access through various initiatives aimed at reaching the next billion users.

Facebook’s Internet.org program, intended to supply free Internet to people in developing countries, is renaming its app “Free Basics”—and allowing developers greater flexibility in creating apps for the platform. In a Facebook post published Thursday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the changes, explaining why the company was rebranding the initiative. “We’ve changed the name of the app providing these free basic services to ‘Free Basics,”‘ he wrote. “We want to make it clear that the apps you can use through Internet.org are free, basic services that can give you access to essential resources like BabyCenter.” BabyCenter is just one of more than 60 services created by developers for Internet.org, offered in countries like India, Colombia, Ghana, and the Philippines.

Over half the world’s population – 57 percent or 4.2 billion people – still does not have access to the Internet, a report from the Broadband Commission for Digital Development says. The announcement was made at the Facebook Headquarters in Melno Park, California by Chris Daniels, VP of Internet.org, in the presence of a small group of Indian journalists. Called Wi-Fi Express, the initiative is part of Facebook’s Internet.org platform as it looks to expand its user base beyond the saturated markets in the US and Europe. Launched in 2013, Internet.org initially (and controversially) provided access only to Facebook and content from select partners; earlier this year, however, it was opened up to all developers, albeit with a number of limitations. 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.

If a user tries to view content that isn’t included in Facebook’s free package, they are asked to pay for a data plan—prompting users and advocacy groups to call Internet.org’s truncated services a violation of net neutrality. But Facebook is also playing a role in determining what services are accessible through its app, and that’s what sparked complaints from public advocates and online publishers.

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. Though the rebranding—and a few other changes—have been welcomed, some are still raising concerns as Zuckerberg takes his global mission from California to New York and back again. ‘It’s pretty hard to understand how a reasonable person would be against the program at this point. We are working on various business models to help the local entrepreneur get returns and turn investors in the project in the long term,” Seth told BusinessLine. Facebook has developed a low-cost software that will help hotspot operators at the village level do the billing and also alert consumers about data usage.

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. No content is blocked.’ In the wake the Internet.org reboot, the global public advocate Access Now applauded the app’s new name and other changes to the service.

But it also complained that the app still violates the idea of net neutrality—the concern at the heart of an open letter to Zuckerberg, signed by more than 65 advocacy organizations in 31 countries, that Access Now published this past May. “There are things that are good,” says Josh Levy, who has spearheaded the complaints from Access Now and others, “and there are things that are unchanged.” Chris Daniels, the Facebook vice president in charge of the larger Internet.org project, which also seeks to provide internet access to developing areas via flying drones and satellites, says the company respects its critics. 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. Anyone currently using the app will be able to continue using the Android app, though it will now be called Free Basics by Facebook in Google Play,” Facebook said in a blogpost. Developers have made apps that will work with the Facebook platform so that users can now access 60 more services alongside what Zuckerberg is calling “Free Basics.” Many of the new services will be resources for entrepreneurship, health information, and parenting tips.

It is giving people a choice of the applications they can use,” he says. “I was a little confounded by the reaction.” The issue is that Facebook’s free Android app—and the free website that lets you do something similar from phones that don’t run the Android operating system—offer access to only a portion of the Internet. 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 works with various wireless carriers to get the app on phones; the idea is that it can provide online access to people who couldn’t otherwise afford wireless data service or don’t quite understand what the Internet can do for them. Facebook, however, is confident that its initiative will become one of the key projects addressing connectivity issues not just in India but other emerging markets. “Initial data coming in from the hotspots installed in India suggests that this model will work. We will take this to other countries much faster than what we had initially thought,” said Chris Daniels, global leader of the Internet.org initiative. Most of the comments on this announcement were positive, though several Indians noted that farmers in Maharashtra probably worried more about putting food on the table than their Internet access.

Zuckerberg and Facebook, critics say, become gatekeepers determining what apps people can access. “Net Neutrality requires that the Internet be maintained as an open platform on which network providers treat all content, applications, and services equally, without discrimination. Facebook is now in the position of deciding winners and losers through Free Basics.” Facebook and Daniels say that anyone can build a service for inclusion in the app. The aircraft has the wingspan of a Boeing 777 and is built to stay airborne at 60,000 feet for many months, connecting a large area over which it hovers. Explaining the rationale behind Wi-Fi Express, Yael Maguire, Head of Connectivity Labs, Facebook, said: “In countries such as India we have realised consumers in rural areas have about $25 a year to spend on communication needs. It is difficult to meet that cost level and that’s why we are researching technologies that will address this challenge.” Another project Facebook is experimenting on is using lasers to transmit data.

That is the purpose of Free Basic.” If you give them a taste, he says, they will move to the broader Internet. “I don’t think anyone who suffers from the awareness barrier is going to be attracted by some megabytes,” he says. “That doesn’t make sense to people.” Subjective selection of services based on what an individual selector or group of selectors believe is the best for a market of internet consumers; will ultimately result in doubting the intention of such a move. It’s probably only a matter of time before the FTC and the EU took a closer look at Facebook influencing mobile operators to offer preferential treatment to its services over others.

But an internet services company saying you get read only access for free (for the sake of simplicity) and need to purchase a plan for engaging seems more like tempting a user with a nugget under the guise of doing good.

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