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Facebook’s Internet for All Is a tough sell in India

Tuesday 27 October 2015, by SIGNIS

Mumbai, Brussels, October 27th, 2015 (SIGNIS/ NY Times). Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has said many times that he wants to bring the Internet to the four billion people in the world who lack it. To help achieve this goal, a few years ago he launched, with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera Software and Qualcomm, the Internet.org. project

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Mark Zuckerberg

In 2015, in a partnership with Reliance communications, Internet.org was launched in India, under the name Freenet. The aim, at first, was to bring an Internet connection to those who do not have the financial means in six states of India. With this app, people can access more over thirty free services, such as news articles, health and job information or a text-only version of Facebook.

However, Indians do not seem to use it that much. There are multiple reasons: first, Reliance’s connection isn’t the greatest, but most of all, the package offered is not complete enough. For instance, they cannot have access to WhatsApp, the famous call and text app that the market leaders, such as Airtel or Vodafone, provide. Users also have to pay to see the pictures on Facebook.

In more than two dozen interviews in poor neighbourhoods of Mumbai, a reporter found several people who had tried Internet.org but only one who used it regularly.

Facebook’s answer to those critics is simple: the primary goal is to show people what the Internet is, not to offer them for free every service available, and to reach people who were completely new to the Internet. Chris Daniels, the Facebook executive who leads Internet.org said that about a million people had been introduced to the Internet in India because of the program. After 30 days, about 40% of them became paying data customers, 5% stuck with only free services and the rest left.

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Gurdeep Singh

Gurdeep Singh, the chief executive of Reliance’s consumer business, defended the quality of his company’s network, but acknowledged that it needed to do more to raise awareness of Freenet and persuade retailers to promote it.
Singh added that Reliance was committed to extend their services, to all the states of India.

Other also criticized the project, such as Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, an Indian news site. She said “on the open Internet, everyone is equal, on Internet.org, Facebook is the kingmaker”. She helped organize a campaign called Save the Internet, to press regulators to stop Internet.org and establish rules protecting net neutrality. This is also a subject of debates in the US and in Europe, arguing that Internet access providers should give customers equal access to all content.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said about Internet.org: “maybe they have wonderful objectives, but the way it is being implemented, that’s not really appropriate”.

Facebook has been listening to all the criticism and had made many changes, including opening it to other companies that wanted to offer free services on the platform.

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