Zuckerberg to press on with Internet access
Barcelona, Spain — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed Monday to press on with his 3-year-old effort to bring the developing world online, even after Indian regulators banned one of the pillars of the campaign.
Free Basics was only one program in his Internet.org campaign, so he could proceed with others. Indian regulators banned Free Basics this month because it provided access only to certain pre-approved services — including Facebook — rather than the full Internet.
“Facebook isn’t a company that hits a roadblock and gives up,” Zuckerberg said at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain. “We take the hits and try to get better.”
Though Zuckerberg termed the regulatory defeat “disappointing for the mission and a major setback,” he added that “the model that has worked in one country may not work in another.”
This was his third appearance at the Barcelona show to promote Internet access to everyone in the world. He has argued that online connections can improve lives and fuel economic development.
Zuckerberg dreams of providing Internet connections through a network of drones, satellites and lasers. He said Monday Internet.org would launch its first satellite over Africa this year and “we are about to test flying Internet drone solar planes that can fly three months a year.”
While the drones may someday connect people in areas too remote for cables or cell towers, Free Basics is intended for people who live in areas with Internet service but can’t afford it. Facebook works with wireless carriers in poorer nations to let people use streamlined versions of Facebook and certain other online services without paying data charges.
Facebook doesn’t pay wireless companies for the cost of Free Basics. Carriers make money if new users eventually move to a paid data plan. Facebook also says it makes no money, as it doesn’t show ads, though Zuckerberg has conceded it benefits from eventually gaining users.
Free Basics is in 36 countries. It was suspended last year in Egypt, on the anniversary of anti-government protests that were organized partly on Facebook. An earlier version of Free Basics, known as Facebook Zero, was shuttered three years ago in Chile, after authorities said Internet providers couldn’t offer discounts for accessing some content but not others.
Similar concerns turned India into the program’s biggest battleground.
Free Basics enrolled more than 1 million Indians in its first year, according to Facebook’s wireless partner, Reliance Communications. But critics, including many in the country’s growing tech community, complained it was a predatory scheme: If low-income users couldn’t afford anything besides Free Basics, opponents said, that meant Facebook was deciding which online services the nation’s poor could use.
“The government should not allow big players to monopolize the Internet,” said Manu Sharma, who runs a software development company in New Delhi.
Facebook responded last fall by announcing it would open Free Basics to any app that met its technical requirements for systems with limited capacity. Zuckerberg also changed the program’s name to Free Basics, after critics complained “Internet.org” sounded like a nonprofit, when it’s part of a for-profit company (the overall campaign is still called Internet.org).
But opponents still worry Facebook could change requirements at any time, force competitors to pay higher rates to get into the program, or even block services that run afoul of powerful politicians.
U.S. regulators have endorsed the concept of “net neutrality,” which says all websites and apps should be treated equally by Internet providers. They’re now studying whether “zero rating” programs, which offer some content for free, should be allowed. Net neutrality backers hope India’s decision will influence other nations.