Facebook’s Free Basics app and web platform, providing access to over 250 services, is now live in 19 countries including India. On #IndiaHangOut Concepts, our panel of experts discuss Internet.org and its Free Basics programme, especially in context of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the social media giant’s headquarters in Silicon Valley during his US trip.
The panel included Prasanto K Roy, Media & Digital Consultant; Apar Gupta, Cyber Expert; and Raman Chima, Global Policy Director, Access Now and a founding volunteer of savetheinternet.in, along with Govindraj Ethiraj.
The panel noted that Modi’s meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a tacit acknowledgement of the huge impact that social media has in India today. Prasanto Roy pointed out, “Facebook is a huge driver for internet adoption in India.Out of 394 million Internet users in India, 50% of them use either Facebook or Whatsapp – which is a huge market for any company and also a powerful communication tool, a fact Modi well understands.”
Raman Chima noted that while the prime minister held conversations with various tech giants on how to improve tech connectivity in the country much work needed to be done by the government on the ground, “It has to start with access and the government needs to move with actual deployment of broadband plans across the country as many parts are still off the internet grid.”
Does Internet.org violate spirit of net neutrality?
Apar Gupta came in on the legal debate on Internet.org. He stressed that the essential problem remains the lack of clear policy direction on zero-rating. He pointed to the fact that three arms of the government – the Ministry of Telecommunications, the Department of Telecom as well as the Parliamentary Standing Committee have had more than six months since the net neutrality debate began but there was no concrete directive from the Centre. Gupta suggested, “In the interim to get things moving, principals of telecom regulation could be applied to Facebook’s Internet.org as the service is being rolled out in partnership with Telecom companies.”
Connectivity Versus Access
Prasanto Roy, who in his earlier avatar was the editor of Cybermedia, observed that India as a country needed affordable access to the internet and this needed to be put into motion as soon as possible. But the question still remains as to what checkpoints will be brought in before Internet.org and Airtel zero gain ground. He ended with the question, “How will the government ensure that these services do not violate the spirit of net neutrality?”