Internet.org, India and Net Neutrality
In recent days, Internet.org India has received an immense amount of criticism for offering services that are “incompatible with net neutrality” – a concept that all web services should be equally accessible.
The Facebook-led initiative endeavors to alleviate the social and economic obstacles to internet connectivity by lowering the cost of accessing the internet, and raising awareness about the value of the internet. While the initiative has already extended to more than 800 million people in 9 countries, the way in which it connects users to the Internet is the subject of increasing public debate and scrutiny.
The Internet.org Initiative
According to the Internet.org site, Internet.org unites “technology leaders, nonprofits and local communities to connect the two thirds of the world that doesn’t have internet access.”
Internet.org partners with mobile operators and governments in various countries, to offer free access in local languages to basic internet services in areas such as jobs, health, education and messaging. In a nutshell, Internet.org offers a selection of apps and websites that are free for consumers.
Zero Rating and Distorting Competition
This is all possible through ‘zero-rating’ services. Zero-rating is a policy where telecommunication companies don’t “pass on the costs of handling the data traffic so that consumers can receive services for free.” Instead, the app provider covers the data bill.
Critics contend that zero-rating distorts competition because publishers who do not subscribe to Internet.org cannot reach the millions of people in emerging economies who don’t have access to the Internet.
Another critic of Internet.org further stated: “Once they log in, though, they’ll end up seeing only a handful of sites that have typically paid a large chunk of money to be there. And those that have paid these placement fees essentially now sit at the ‘front door’ of the internet to these newbie users.”
Internet.org in India
In India, Internet.org partnered with Reliance Communication to provide free access to 37 websites or apps, including its own. However, following intense debate over internet freedom and net neutrality, travel portal Cleartrip.com and Times Group both announced that they would be withdrawing from the service, citing competition fears.
A Times Group spokesman said, “We support net neutrality because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies – big and small – to produce the best service and offer it to consumers…We will lead the drive towards a neutral internet, but we need our fellow publishers and content providers to do so as well, so that the playing field continues to be level.”
The response in India has been massive; in less than a week, more than 800,000 Indians have sent emails to India’s telecom regulator, demanding a free and fair Internet.
In a blog post, Mark Zuckerberg responded to this criticism stating: “net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist. To give more people access to the Internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.”
Zuckerberg maintains that the service is open to all mobile operators and arguments about net neutrality should not be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people from gaining access to the internet.
The Debate Continues
While the debate surrounding net neutrality and Internet.org ensues, it continues to raise significant points on equal access and connectivity, and fair competition. However, while sifting through the discourse and rhetoric, it is important that all sides of the matter are not seen in vacuum, as each position forms a crucial part of the debate.