Is Facebook’s Internet.org For India In Line With The Principles Of Net Neutrality

Facebook and RCom have launched Internet.org in India to connect a billion people to Internet triggering a debate on net neutrality

Facebook RCom Internet.org

Facebook’s ambitious project to grab its next billion users from emerging markets – Internet.org was launched yesterday in India. Reliance Communications (RCom), India’s second largest telecom operator with over 150 million subscribers has partnered with Facebook to bring Internet.org to India.

According to the company release, Reliance customers in six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana) will now have access to more than three dozen services ranging from news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.

The company states that Reliance customers in India can access these services in the Internet.org Android app, from the start screen of the Opera Mini mobile web browser, and using the Android app UC Browser for Internet.org. One can also call 1800 300 25353 which is a toll free number, to get Internet.org activated.

RCom backed by Facebook has decided to be a marketplace of internet services; Airtel India the largest cellular service provider in India has opted to be a gateway of internet services with its offering oneTouchInternet. The company believes that the “oneTouchInternet is a first of its kind initiative aimed at simplifying Internet services for millions of first-time users in India.”

Whatever be the way, operators RCom and Airtel are bringing the Internet to more than a billion people who are yet to benefit from the Internet. It isn’t a non-profit initiative, operators are making money as these services are free for certain features, anything above it will be charged. For example if you are accessing Facebook, then you can post your status but if you want to view a picture you may be charged or any third party links/apps/videos will be charged. Both operators have their ways of charging for data services.

Mark Zuckerberg, who wishes to bring the internet to two-thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it via Internet.org, is raising questions over the business practices. The biggest question right now is – Is Internet.org in line with the principles of net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle by which Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally not discriminating or charging deferentially by user, content, site, platform, among other things. US is already witnessing an extensive debate on the issue. In fact US President Barack Obama has also called for new regulations to protect net neutrality. However, his call for greater regulation of internet as utility has stunned major telecoms, lobbyist groups and politicians.

In India the net neutrality debate is happening over the below three reasons:

Selection process of Internet services

For Facebook questions are being raised on its walled garden approach with Internet.org. The same were raised during Airtel’s oneTouchInternet. Right now more than three dozen sites have been selected for the Internet.org India but there isn’t any clarity on what is the selection process.

For example in career and jobs section. TimesJobs, Babajob have been selected but Naukri.com which is by far the most popular and most used jobs portal in the country is not in the list, points Medianama. Similarly in utility section OLX, Astro, Cleartrip, AccuWeather have been chosen and other services JustDial, Getit, Ganeshaspeaks, Quikr, Sulekha.com, Yatra, GoIbibo, MakeMyTrip have been left out.

Right now neither Facebook nor RCom is ready to address what is the selection criteria and is there a sign up fee for this process. Same holds true for Airtel, it has not revealed the selection process and in its case it is obvious that it will give preference to the Internet services that it is building.

Who is making money?

According to Facebook, the app is free and Facebook and Internet.org don’t pay at all. Instead, the free access acts as an on-ramp to operator’s data plans. If users click-through to links outside of the services or use other apps, Internet.org will show users a roadblock screen that warns them they’ll be expending their data plan or need to buy one.

The same applies to RCom – Facebook is free in the app, RCom will only offer you the option to read and post status messages, like or comment on statuses and pictures. But the pictures themselves will appear blurred and to download these images, you will either need a data plan, or you can activate data connection for Rs 9 per day or Rs 15 for a 15-day pack.

However, Mark had earlier accepted that in the longer run getting more people on the Internet will help Facebook.

Facebook sees it as a pro-access

“I think that the principles of net neutrality are around pro-access. And the principles of Internet.org are pro-access as well,” said Chris Daniels, Vice-President of Internet.org at Facebook. “The thing that we’re trying to do is bring access to many more people through Internet.org. So I see that the philosophies of this and net neutrality are entirely aligned.”

Daniels does not believe there is a conflict here, as Facebook is essentially restricting access by offering only specific services for free. “I don’t see the conflict actually, the net neutrality discussion today really focuses on the people who are already online,” Daniels says. “And what it needs to also do is be inclusive of the people who are not online. So bringing more people online we view as pro-access, right in line with the principles of net neutrality as well.”

Internet.org makes those operators happy who have been really worried with the growth of internet companies and apps. Definitely this also means that Facebook which has more than 100 million active users in India, the fastest growing smartphone market in Asia, is also looking to grow its base with this initiative.

However the choice of services remain in the operator’s hand. Which means that if Airtel is the selected operator in India, messaging app Hike could also find its feet in the internet.org app alongside WhatsApp. This is where things might get tricky, as it is creating an environment of monopoly and the favoritism of choice of services that would be included in the app.

However, at the same time we also know that Internet.org makes complete business sense for Facebook as well as for India which is leaping forward to a Digital India. At a time when we have depressing internet infrastructures, Internet.org creates an opportunity for a billion people to access the Internet by making it a basic right besides food, water and shelter.