Commentary

Facebook Defends Zero-Rating Program, Compares 'Free Basics' To Libraries

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is publicly defending his company's "Free Basics" program, which offers broadband access to smartphone users in 35 countries, but only lets them visit some sites for free.

The program has come under fire from net neutrality advocates, who say that Facebook shouldn't be able to pick and choose what services people use online. India's telecom regulator recently ordered Free Basics suspended, due to concerns that the program violates net neutrality principles by giving people incentives to use particular Web services. For instance, according to The New York Times, people who use Free Basics in India can access Bing's search engine for free, but not Google's.

This week, Zuckerberg addressed his critics in a letter published in the Times of India. "We have collections of free basic books," Zuckerberg writes. "They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good."

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"If we accept that everyone deserves access to the Internet, then we must surely support free basic Internet services," he adds. "Who could possibly be against this?"

In many ways, the questions raised by Free Basics are similar to concerns about the zero-ratings programs introduced recently by Comcast, AT&T and other carriers.

Last month, Comcast rolled out Stream, a $15-a-month service that enables Comcast's broadband subscribers to use their Web connections to access many of the same programs that cable customers can watch.

People who sign up for Stream can watch all the videos they like through the service. But if they want to watch Amazon Prime or Netflix, they will run into Comcast's data caps. (Currently, Comcast subscribers in test markets can only consume 300 GB of data a month before they are charged overages of $10 per 50 GB.)

AT&T zero-rates some material from partners in its "Sponsored Data" initiative; Verizon recently said it will start zero-rating some services by partner companies.

Like Facebook, these companies can argue that their programs benefit consumers by enabling them to access content without incurring data charges. At the same time, it's easy to see how these types of data-cap exemptions will end up harming competitors, which could ultimately leave everyone with fewer options.

The Federal Communications Commission recently asked Comcast and other carriers for more information about their zero-ratings programs. It's not yet known whether the agency views the initiatives as problematic.

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