US (BBN)-Facebook on Tuesday announced a tie-up with Reliance Communications to launch Internet.org in India, bringing to the land of a billion-plus people a service that the social media giant says helps affordable internet access but whose critics disapprove its restrictiveness.
India now becomes the sixth destination for Internet.org, a Facebook- led initiative envisaged about a year-and-a-half back with six other founding partners, including Samsung and Qualcomm, reports BBC.
The service has already been launched in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Colombia and Ghana.
Facebook’s 30-year-old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the development on his social network.
He posted, “More than a billion people in India don’t have access to the internet. That means they can’t enjoy the same opportunities many of us take for granted, and the entire world is robbed of their ideas and creativity.”
The tie-up gives subscribers of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Communications who have Internet-enabled handsets free access to 38 Websites- a mix of news, music, education, weather and health sites.
The list includes Facebook, Wikipedia, and Reliance Astrology.
The lone search option available is Microsoft’s Bing.
They can be accessed via an Android app.
For the time being, the service has gone live in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.
The pan-India launch is planned in three months.
Nearly 70% of Reliance’s customers who have Internet-enabled phones but are now offline are expected to avail themselves of this service.
Gurdeep Singh, CEO, Consumer Business, Reliance Communications, said during the launch in Mumbai, “This partnership will not only accelerate internet penetration In India, it will also open new socioeconomic opportunities to users in fields like education, information and commerce.”
Chris Daniels, Vice President of Internet.org at Facebook, said, “This is a big step forward in our efforts to connect every one in India to the internet and help people discover new tools and information that can create more jobs and opportunities.”
Critics, however, see little altruism in Internet.org.
Rather, what they see is a huge challenge to the neutrality of the Internet.
Their point is that a selective access to the Internet makes it extremely difficult for rivals not part of the service.
Lawyer Prashant Reddy said, “It will be interesting to see how Trai (the regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) handles such deals, and whether the market will accuse both these players of violating network neutrality.”
He said, “Also one needs to see how public understands the principles of Net neutrality.”
His point there is no outcry when data packs are offered free but controversy erupts when a service provider tries to charge subscribers for services, as in the case of Airtel recently.
Internet activist and director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, Ethan Zuckerman, told The Hindu in an email interview that “If Facebook were donating millions or billions to upgrade infrastructure- or even to lobby mobile phone carriers for cheaper data services for all- it would be less troubling.
But instead, they’re offering a limited version of the internet, one that centers on Facebook, to low-income internet users.
That raises real concerns that this is not a charitable effort, but a customer acquisition strategy.”
Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director of the Bengaluru-based research and advocacy organisation The Centre for Internet & Society, said he is worried about the long-term consequences. “The Internet.org model violates most definitions of net neutrality, as it provides access to a limited menu of services claiming to be the Internet- being based on a cable TV model- rather than providing actual access to the Internet at a low cost.”
He said, “Since it is an exclusive deal with a single mobile service provider, it also calls into question the genuineness of Mark Zuckerberg’s publicly-stated motive of bringing the Internet to a billion people and bridging the digital divide.”
It is not clear how Facebook and Reliance would bear the cost of the free service.
What Facebook said in its annual report of 2013 is that it would continue to invest in projects even if it does not have a clear path to monetisation, “such as our commitment to the Internet.org initiative to increase global Internet access.”
Even prior to the internet.org initiative, companies such as Facebook and Twitter have individually worked out deals with telecom companies in fast-growing markets to make their services free for subscribers.
Research firm eMarketer had forecast India to be the fastest-growing geography for Facebook in terms of users in 2014.
BBN/SK/AD-11Feb15-11:40am (BST)