April 16, 2015 Last Updated 7:56 am

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg pens Times of India column defending Internet.org

Media companies being to rethink their involvement in Internet.org’s effort to bring free, but sponsored, web access to consumers

The net neutrality debate is certainly not limited to the U.S. But around the world the issues are the same: equal access to information versus businesses desire to find new ways to profit.

In Indian, Facebook has come under fire for its efforts to provide free Internet service, but one that offers limited access to information, and many say is skewed to favor traffic to Facebook.

Zuckerberg-660Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, today penned a column for The Hindustan Times that tried to counter claims that his company’s efforts are counter to the precepts of net neutrality.

“I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“In many countries, however, there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity. The internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. Women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity”

“This is why we created Internet.org, our effort to connect the whole world.”

Zuckerberg then creates the ultimate straw man argument, however, saying that those against his efforts are really against “free”.

“But some people have criticised the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.”

Zero-rating is sometimes called sponsored data, an example of which would be offering a consumer free access TV show, but the only ads seen would be for the company sponsoring the service. Here, though, critics complain that Zuckerberg’s efforts is not really to provide free Internet, so much as to encourage more traffic for Facebook.

“Consumers benefit,” said an associate from IDG Ventures,”but they get pushed towards one set of publishers over others. We have put in capital in many firms and it hurts the smaller companies, which are trying to gain scale, by preferring bigger companies with the ability to pay.”

In India, Internet.org offers an app that gives uses access to around 40 sources of information, including BBC News, The Times of India, Wikipedia, and, of course, Facebook. When the service was launched in February the support site for the service wrote “Today, Facebook and Reliance Communications are making the internet available to millions of people in India through the launch of the Internet.org app and free basic services.

Zuckerberg disagrees with those that say the initiative is designed merely to promote Facebook.

“We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it,” Zuckerberg said.

“Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles – net neutrality and universal connectivity – can and must coexist.”

TToI-frontBut some Indian partners of the Internet.org efforts are having second thoughts. The Times Group, the publisher of The Times of India, today said they will be pulling its support.

“The Times of India and its language websites like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Ei Samay and Nav Gujarat Samay, that have together been spearheading the movement for net-neutrality in India, appeal to all publishers to jointly withdraw from internet.org,” the paper wrote in an editorial.

Ironically, the page presenting the editorial contained a pop-up asking the reader to log into their newspaper account… using Facebook.

Another media company that has pulled out of Internet.org is Cleartrip, the Indian travel website.

“Facebook reached out and asked us to participate in the Internet.org initiative with the intention of helping us deliver one of our most affordable products to the more underserved parts of the country,” Subramanya Sharma, the company’s CMO, wrote on company’s blog. “There was no revenue arrangement between us and Internet.org or any of its participants — we were neither paid anything, nor did we pay anything to participate.”

But the controversy made the company “rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast.”

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