Indian regulators’ ban on differential tariffs for data services will effectively stop Facebook’s free Internet.org platform from ever taking off in the country and could set a precedent for how the product will fare in African countries, Quartz reported.
The decision by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) could embolden critics of Internet.org — or Free Basics, as it’s known — to force regulators to follow suit.
Facebook board member Marc Andreessen criticized India’s opposition to free basics on Facebook, likening India’s opposition to free Internet to anti colonialism, Tech2 reported. His tweet caused such an uproar that he apologized and deleted it.
Critics believe Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy is a front for his wish to dominate Internet in the developing world, BBC reported.
Internet.org provides limited free basic Internet in 38 countries through local mobile service providers, including 20 in Africa: Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.
It’s part of Facebook’s ambitious plan to provide free Internet access to 5 billion people around the world without it. Websites are curated by Facebook and mobile carriers provide the service without users being charged data charges.
Zuckerberg distanced himself from Andreessen’s tweet, according to BBC. “I found the comments deeply upsetting,” Zuckerberg said Tuesday. “They do not represent the way Facebook or I think at all.”
Growing mobile use in Africa helped Facebook break ad revenue records in the fourth quarter of 2015 with 80 percent coming from mobile ads, according to a report in MobileMarketingMagazine.
Not everyone is celebrating, AFKInsider reported. In South Africa, the top two mobile service providers, MTN and Vodacom, say data-based messaging apps are getting a free ride and it’s hurting their profits as SMS revenues fall, ZDNet reported.
They’ve asked the government to regulate and tax over-the-top service providers.
In Kenya and Tanzania, Internet.org is accessible through Airtel Kenya and Millicom’s Tigo. Users get 17 websites, stripped down to basics or, as one user described it, “the Internet of the late 1990s.”
Internet.org is highly controversial in Africa. Critics say Facebook is profit-driven, and the U.S.-based company gets to be gatekeeper to billions of users coming online.
“It is definitely a long-term control of how our people access, consume and use the Internet,” said Yannick Lefang, the Cameroon-born founder of Soko Insight, a Canadian-based consumer research firm focused on Africa. “Our leaders should understand that while ‘free’ market is good, it’s only good when you can compete on the same playing field.”
Others say Internet.org allows an unequal playing field with those who can pay getting full access to the Internet while the poor are marginalized with less access. TRAI’s decision could stop such a dichotomy from emerging.
“Advocates in India and many others in these developing markets are pushing for the conversation of the quality of the Internet be considered,” said Nanjira Sambuli, research lead at Nairobi’s the iHub, one of Kenya’s leading tech incubators, in a Quartz interview. “Else, we risk having a connected world, but with tiered access.”
Responding to the TRAI decision, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Free Basics brought 19 million people online that did not have access to the Internet before. A Facebook spokeswoman said TRAI’s ban refers to differential pricing, not specifically to Free Basics, implying that the project could return there with some adjustments.
“While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings,” she said.
Reaction to Andreessen’s tweet goes to heart of trust — a perennial problem for Facebook, according to BBC.
In the developing world this suspicion is more fraught.
Lefang wants African regulators to ban Internet.org in Africa as well. “Our regulators should review the program and come up with a framework that allows our people to get access to all the Internet at an affordable cost,” he told Quartz. “Net neutrality is about accessing all the Internet, not free restricted Internet.”
Some progressive and ambitious African governments like Rwanda see the Internet as a way to accelerate development, according to Quartz.
In Tanzania, providing access to the Internet is more important right now than concerns over net neutrality, said the country’s regulator, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA). Internet penetration is at 5 percent in East Africa’s second largest economy.
Facebook wants to bring Internet connectivity to hard-to-reach parts of Africa, BBCreported.
In centuries gone by, colonialism was about exploitation of resources. In the modern world, it’s digital – moving in, setting up companies and building insurmountable user bases before any other company can.
That’s arguably an extreme interpretation of the purpose of Free Basics – but it’s the argument made by local businesses to India’s telecoms regulator.
An Indian social network wouldn’t stand a chance against free Facebook, they said, and websites that are not part of the Free Basics scheme would lose out. The regulator agreed when it ruled in favour of net neutrality.
As did many Western onlookers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for an open internet, said Facebook was doing what it could to open up the Free Basics scheme to local companies, the inherent flaw of the programme was that Facebook remained the sole gatekeeper.
India-based Tech2, a tech news website, reached out to Twitter users to see how people feel about India’s move.
It received almost 400 votes in the first hour of the poll: 82 percent of respondents said it was time Facebook wound up Free Basics; about 18 percent of the votes said Free Basics by Facebook should get a second chance in India.