Who knew that giving things away for free could generate so much hate.
Over the past month, critics hammered Facebook‘s Internet.org, the company’s initiative to bring wireless Internet access to everyone in the world. That’s because to its opponents, Internet.org represents a skewed view of the Internet — a Facebook view of the Internet that one detractor likened to “economic racism” which stands to benefit the social network and its partners more than anybody else.
Internet.org gives users in underdeveloped markets like India, Kenya or Indonesia, access a group of hand-selected sites (such as Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook) from a mobile device without the need to purchase data.
The data is provided by carriers that partner with Facebook, and their hope is that this glimpse into the Internet will ultimately be enough to spur people to purchase additional data plans to explore the rest of the Web. (In February, Internet.org landed in six states in India working with the local operator Reliance.)
From Facebook’s standpoint, Internet.org is a win-win-win. Users get free Internet services that they wouldn’t otherwise pay for; telecom providers get new customers in the ones who are prompted to buy data plans; and Facebook gets more users from markets that are reaching the Internet for the very first time. This last point is especially critical for Facebook as it has started to see slower growth in the U.S.
But opponents say the plan is not adherent to net neutrality, the belief that all Internet data should be equally treated and equally accessible, and a principle that Facebook has vocally supported back in the United States.
The debate may go a long way in determining how Internet.org is adopted in other parts of the world.
The stink over Internet.org came about after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper in late March that focused on net neutrality and asked for public comment. Following a concerted push from Internet activists, more than a million people responded in support of net neutrality, even though India doesn’t have any laws upholding it.
As a result, services like Facebook’s Internet.org became the focus of public debate and numerous articles condemned the plan. The backlash was strong enough that some Indian tech companies pulled their services from Internet.org altogether.
Critics say that by allowing Facebook to choose which services Indian citizens get for free, the company could end up stifling innovation among Indian entrepreneurs. In other words, there’d be less motivation to create a competing social network in India if everyone else is already on Facebook.
Plus, in India, the telecom operators are a popular enemy. They are widely identified with a history of suppressing innovation and Internet startups. By linking arms with them for the zero-rating, Facebook suffers ire by association.
More importantly, the opponents believe Facebook’s mission is self-serving. It provides free segments of the Internet to some of India’s 1.25 billion people, but Facebook is one of those segments that comes as part of the package. It’s seen a way for the company to boost user growth under the guise of philanthropy.
Manu Rekhi, a director at Inventus Capital Partners, called the zero-rating initiatives like Internet.org “wolves in sheeps’ clothing.” Mahesh Murthy, a managing partner at Indian VC firm Seedfund, has also been vocal about Facebook’s intentions. He called the plan “economic racism.”
Murthy pointed to the services Facebook included to make his point. Internet.org used Microsoft’s Bing as the available search engine, even though Murthy says the majority of Indians use Google. Facebook also included a second-tier job search service instead of the industry leader.
“When they finally announced Internet.org, it seemed to us like a bit of a joke,” Murthy told Re/code. “Why don’t you just come out and say this is the Facebook poor people-acquisition service? It kind of seems insincere, this entire effort.”
This backlash in India has likely been troubling for CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has publicly defended the program. His message has centered around the benefits of Internet.org, specifically how it can open doors to people who were previously off the grid.
In an op-ed run by the Hindustan Times last month, Zuckerberg wrote that the Internet can bring people opportunities that were previously out of reach.
Facebook believes in an open Internet, he added, and Internet.org is a step in the right direction.
“To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some services for free,” Zuckerberg wrote. “If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all.”
The company responded to the net neutrality claims from a product standpoint as well: it opened the Internet.org service to all developers in early May. (You can watch Zuckerberg explain the change in his Facebook post below.) That means any developer can apply to get his app or website included in the free package, and services that are approved will be listed alongside Facebook to Internet.org users later this summer.
There are limitations, of course. Certain kinds of high-bandwidth content like video might be denied. And while the change brings more services to Internet.org, it’s ultimately still a version of the Internet that runs through Facebook’s censors. It’s one step towards opening up the program, but for many it’s just that — one step.
“That makes it slightly more tenable,” Murthy said, “but what it does is it locks out anybody who does not explicitly apply with Internet.org to be included.”
In other words, it’s still Facebook’s Internet, they’re simply letting more people play.
Internet.org is less than a year old — it’s available in just 11 countries so far — which means the program has lots of time to evolve. This newness also heightens the importance of what’s happening in India. It may very well serve as a precedent for other important regions, like Brazil and Indonesia.
It’s possible that Facebook’s issues could dissuade other companies, like Google or Twitter, from moving forward with their own zero-rating offerings. Both tech giants have discussed such initiatives in India. But Facebook, the most aggressive of the bunch, is very much a pioneer, with others looking to it as an example.
“This whole thing is building up to a major crisis,” said one tech veteran in India familiar with Internet.org. For Facebook, the looming concern is that the backlash will spread to the next largest markets on the horizon. “Both Brazil and Indonesia are taking cues from India.”
Facebook’s VP of Internet.org, Chris Daniels, says he expects these net neutrality questions will be prevalent wherever Facebook goes.
“The net neutrality discussion is going to happen in many places around the world, and I think that’s A-OK,” Daniels said in an interview with Re/code. “The principle for us is to design a program that is ultimately good for people, which we are very confident that this is, and that is good for the Internet as a whole.”
Facebook is not alone in this mission. Jana, another company focused on zero-rating services, has a program called mCent that gives users cash to spend on things like data or app downloads in exchange for trying a new app. For example, a company like Google might let a user download its app for free, and then credit their account so that they have additional money to spend elsewhere.
Mavin, which is just now coming out of stealth mode, does something similar, but offers data credits instead of cash credits. The idea in both cases is to give users cash or data to use in any way they want.
It’s possible Facebook could adopt a similar strategy. Multiple sources we talked to suggested that if Facebook really cares about connecting the world, it will hand out data for free. No strings attached. If people download Facebook with that data, it will be a bonus.
The belief fueling the backlash was summed up by Murthy. “Everybody,” he said, “should have access to the same Internet.”