In an op-ed published in today's Times of India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a plea on behalf of Free Basics, his company's program that offers unlimited, free access to a limited set of apps and websites in India and a number of other countries.
The program is under popular attack in India, criticized for offering access to a skewed, Facebook-ified version of the internet instead of the entire thing, and faces an existential risk from regulators who are considering whether it's fair for a company to shape the type of internet its citizens have access to.
"If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services. That’s why more than 30 countries have recognized Free Basics as a program consistent with net neutrality and good for consumers," Zuckerberg wrote. "Who could possibly be against this?"
Zuckerberg's op-ed is the latest move in an aggressive effort by Facebook to shore up support for the program in India, where the tide of popular opinion seems headed in the other direction. The company took the unusual step of deploying its notifications tab last week to promote a petition addressed to India's Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in support of Free Basics. It also took out a two page ad spread in the Times of India over the weekend arguing on behalf of the program.
Protests against Free Basics' model by net neutrality advocates, who argue that Facebook is a self-interested gatekeeper providing its own version of the internet, have grown so loud that the TRAI has asked Reliance Communications, which works with Facebook to provide the service, to put it on hold.
Linked at the bottom of Zuckerberg's Times Of India op-ed was a counterpoint written by Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of Savetheinternet.in, which advocates for internet rights in India. In his piece, Pahwa outlined the main critique against Free Basics, arguing that it goes against the principles of Net Neutrality.
"Net Neutrality is about the ISPs (and telecom operators) not giving a competitive advantage to any particular website or application," Pahwa wrote "Today, Facebook, in partnership with Reliance Communications, reserves the right to reject applications from websites and apps for Free Basics, and forces them to conform to its technical guidelines."
Instead of pursuing the current Free Basics model, which offers unlimited access to a select group of apps and websites, Pahwa asks why Facebook is not providing limited access to the entire internet. This setup would not privilege one service, such as Facebook's, over another.
Oddly, for a company required to maximize value for its shareholders, Facebook continues to insist that its Free Basics program is not about making money. "This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests – there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics," Zuckerberg wrote in his op-ed.
But of course, Facebook stands to gain if Free Basics helps it secure a beachhead with the millions of people it brings online. If Facebook is one of the first apps people have access to and connect with, then it will likely enjoy a similar network effect that has made it seemingly irreplaceable in countries like the U.S., where it has been adopted en masse. And while the company is not running ads to Free Basics users right now, it could of course eventually do so in the future.
In the two page ad spread appearing in Sunday's Times Of India, Facebook, addressing the revenue question, declared: "We are doing this to connect India, and the benefits to do so are clear." That statement may be fair, but only if one acknowledges that the clear benefits exist not only for those coming online via Free Basics, but for the company providing that access as well.