Facebook ignited a debate on net neutrality in India after the social network giant launched Free Basics, a new service that allows users in the country to access basic internet services such as communication, news, local jobs, local government information, travel, and maternal health.

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Free Basics is part of the initiative of Facebook under the internet.org to provide internet access to billions of people around the world.

India’s telecom regulator blocks Free Basics

Last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India suspended the offering of Facebook’s Free Basics through its partner, Reliance Communications due to concerns over net neutrality.

The Indian regulator explained that its decision was prompted by the question whether Facebook should be allowed to decide which internet services can be offered for free.

“The question has arisen whether a telecom operator should be allowed to have differential pricing for different kinds of content. Unless that question is answered, it will not be appropriate for us to continue to make that happen,” according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority.

Opponents argued that Facebook is not the right organization to decide which internet services should be offered for free. They also expressed concerns regarding the privacy of internet users in India citing the reason that traffic is routed through the servers of the social network giant.

A small number of critics are pushing for a total ban on Free Basics based on the issue of net neutrality. They want people to pay equally to access all internet services even if a billion people cannot afford to access any service.

Facebook Free Basics serves as bridge to full internet and digital equality

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the critics of Free Basic in India through an op-ed published on Monday.

Zuckerberg emphasized that the opponents mischaracterized Free Basic as providing people limited choice and making the internet more like a walled garden.

According to him, Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, and it respects net neutrality. It serves as a “bridge to the full internet and digital equality,” and everyone deserves access to free basic internet services.

He explained that there were basic services in every society such as free basic education and healthcare.

“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,” wrote Zuckerberg.

He pointed out that one out of ten people with internet access is lifted out of poverty based on the fact that having internet access also means getting access to jobs. He said,” We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet.”

Zuckerberg noted that research shows that the “biggest barriers to connecting people are affordability and awareness of the Internet. According to him, many people cannot afford to start using the internet, and even if they could, they don’t know its impact on their lives.

Free Basics is consistent with net neutrality

Zuckerberg pointed out the Facebook worked with app developers, mobile operators, and civil society in more than 30 countries including India to overcome the barriers of connecting people to the internet.

According to him, more than 35 operators launched Free Basics, and 15 million people gained internet access. Fifty percent (50%) of the people who use the service to go online for the time decided to pay to access the full internet within 30 days.

Zuckerberg said more than 30 countries recognized Free Basics as program consistent with net neutrality and good for consumers.” If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services,” he said.

He added that critics should remember that Facebook is doing everything to provide free basic Internet services to serve people like Ganesh, an Indian farmer in Maharashtra, who started using Free Basics to obtain weather information to prepare for monsoon season, and commodity prices to get better deals.

Zuckerberg asked, “What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?”

He concluded, “Choose facts over false claims. Everyone deserves access to the internet. Free basic internet services can help achieve this. Free Basics should stay to help achieve digital equality for India.”