Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans as they protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
The trouble Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org faces in India is straight from the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished department.
The organization, which launched in 2013 to bring the Internet to millions, has long been viewed with suspicion. That distrust boiled over last week in India when some of Internet.org’s partners left after the initiative came under fire.
But the critiques of its effort have struck me as unfair, off-point and shortsighted.
I’m not worried about Facebook and Zuckerberg. It’s the two-thirds of the world not yet connected to the Internet that I’m concerned about.
A demonstrator checks his mobile phone as activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Internet.org partners with businesses and a wireless carrier in a country to provide an app for free that is a gateway to a limited number of Internet services, such as search, social media and news sites. The carrier doesn’t pass on costs to the users, but it gets help from Internet.org on technology and marketing. Now in nine countries, Internet.org claims to have brought 7 million people online.
From the beginning, the organization was attacked as a way for Facebook closer to saturating the developed world, to get its foot in untapped markets, serve new users ads and make more money.
If this is how Facebook is trying to set up shop in new territories, it has to be the hardest way possible. For one thing, it’s not just technology and infrastructure issues that have prevented people going online; companies have to crack the nut of coming up with relevant reasons the Internet is even worth people’s time.
This is a case where philanthropy and business interests coincide. For many, connecting with friends and family is the best reason to be online, and Facebook naturally benefits from that.
The second critique is that what Internet.org offers isn’t the Internet at all but “Internet lite.” Launched in six Indian states in February, Internet.org, working with Reliance, an Indian carrier, partnered with about three dozen organizations that provide news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication and local government information, among other subjects.
“Poor Internet for poor people,” headlines declared.
“Even with a small benefit, we shouldn’t accept a walled garden,” said Mishi Choudhary, executive director with the Software Freedom Law Center in India. Internet access is “a fundamental right,” she told me.
Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
But right now only 25 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people have Internet service. I agree with Zuckerberg, who in a Facebook post last week, said that “if someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.”
And then there is the third, most recent complaint — that Internet.org, by offering a limited Internet for free, is somehow working against the principles of net neutrality. The criticism was intense enough that it spurred an exodus, with Flipkart, an e-commerce company, Cleartrip, a travel site, and the Times Group, a news organization, leaving the effort.
There may be other, better ways to bring the Internet to the poor. Give people a few months of free data perhaps?
But it seems to me that Internet.org is offering something valuable — a tangible taste of what the Internet can be for Indians who have never seen it. Once they have tasted it, my hunch is they will want more, and other tech firms and businesses will rush in to serve them.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and [email protected] Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.