After India’s telecom regulator moved to suspend Facebook’s “Free Basics” service for zero-rated basic Internet service last week, founder Mark Zuckerberg came to its defense today in a charmingly traditional medium, with a newspaper op-ed published in The Times of India. The opinion piece rebuts critics who claim Facebook is violating the principles of net neutrality and trying to establish a “walled garden” that steers Internet users towards Facebook and related platforms.
Zuckerberg argued that Internet access is important enough that it should be considered a public good, with a certain minimum level guaranteed: “We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good. We have free basic healthcare. Public hospitals don’t offer every treatment, but they still save lives. We have free basic education. Every child deserves to go to school. And in the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights. That’s why everyone also deserves access to free basic internet services.”
He then drew attention to the potential benefits of Internet access in developing countries like India, asserting: “We know that for every 10 people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty. We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.”
Zuckerberg also pointed out that free Internet access is less a “walled garden” than a stepping stone for most users, as “half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days,” freeing them from the putative constraints placed on their activity by Facebook.
Turning to the opponents, Zuckerberg denied claims that Facebook would deny access to any rival service or give preferential treatment to any telco or developer. Last but not least, he pointed out that Facebook doesn’t stand to benefit (at least directly) in commercial terms: “This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests – there aren’t even any ads in the version of Facebook in Free Basics.”
Facebook has also been wooing public opinion in India with an advertising campaign appearing in newspapers and billboards over the last few weeks. However last week’s decision by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will stand for the time being – and as many foreign firms before Facebook has discovered, India’s powerful regulators are not easily swayed.