Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded on Thursday to critics of Internet.org, the company’s project designed to bring Internet access to underserved markets. A number of Indian businesses have pulled out of the project this week over net neutrality concerns.
“Some people have criticized the concept of zero-rating that allows Internet.org to deliver free basic Internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.”
Initiatives like Internet.org and Bharti Airtel’s Airtel Zero make certain apps free for users if businesses pay them to do so, Forbes reports. Critics say these types of partnerships favor “a select few, thus promoting a non-neutral, preferential internet.”
Internet.org launched in India earlier this year, partnering with Reliance Communications to roll out the service to “millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andrhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana.” The app is currently available in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The service has 800 million users.
Companies including ecommerce online travel site Cleartrip, media startup Newshunt and the publisher of the Times of India newspaper have all withdrawn services from Internet.org.
In an open letter on the Hindustan Times, India’s Save the Internet coalition called Internet.org “Zuckerberg’s ambitious project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.”
The coalition calls zero-rating “a way for rich companies and telcos to sign secret deals that exempt certain data traffic from incurring any usage charges. Facebook’s Internet.org is such a scheme, as is ‘Airtel Zero’ from India’s leading mobile operator Bharti Airtel. Unfortunately its very first customer Flipkart, India’s leading mobile retailer, pulled out after realizing the significance of an open and unrestricted Internet.”
In a response to a comment on his Facebook post that asked why only selected websites are free via Internet.org, Zuckerberg says it comes down to cost: “It’s too expensive to make the whole internet free. Mobile operators spend tens of billions of dollars to support all of internet traffic. If it was all free they’d go out of business. But by offering some basic services, it’s still affordable for them and it’s valuable and free for everyone to use.”
Bringing Internet access to remote corners of the world could benefit hosting service providers in the long run as new customers look to create a web presence, but if Internet is synonymous with Facebook, other service providers may have a hard time catching up.