Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has written a forceful defense of the company's plans to offer limited, free internet access in India, comparing free internet services like Facebook's Free Basics service with libraries and public hospitals. In an op-ed written for The Times of India, Zuckerberg says that although libraries don't offer every book to read and hospitals can't cure every illness, they still provide a "world of good," suggesting that just because free internet services only offer access to a limited number of sites — which, in the case of Free Basics, third-parties can apply to join but that Facebook ultimately controls — they're still an essential public service.
The US social network is currently fighting to win over a skeptical public in India, with critics in the country claiming that Free Basics — formerly Internet.org — undermines the principles of net neutrality. Last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) even asked Facebook's partner in India, Reliance Communications, to temporarily suspend access to Free Basics while its terms and conditions are examined in detail. The TRAI is expected to make a decision on the legality of Free Basics and other, similar services in January, reports The Wall Street Journal, and meanwhile, Facebook is lobbying hard, taking out full-page ads in Indian newspapers and offering toll-free numbers for supporters to call to "support digital equality."
Zuckerberg: "No valid basis for denying people the choice to use Free Basics."
In his column for the Times, Zuckerberg says he is nonplussed by criticism of Free Basics, writing that "surprisingly, over the last year there's been a big debate about this." "Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people," he writes, adding that it's a "fact" that the Free Basics is "opening up the whole internet," with "half" of people who use the ad-free service paying "to access the full internet within 30 days."
Critics of Free Basics, however, contend that the service is not only against the principles of net neutrality, but could also stifle innovation in India while further cementing Facebook's presence in the country. (India is the second-most populous nation in the world, and home to more Facebook users than any other country than the USA.) Groups like the Free Software Movement of India (FSMI) have even launched their own campaign against Free Basics, claiming that Facebook is misleading users and that the social network could introduce ads to the service in the future.