Facebook founder flounders on Indian net neutrality

For a man who has pledged to donate 99 per cent of his immense wealth to charity and the general advancement of humankind, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to understand the point of philanthropy.

His company Facebook, the social networking juggernaut with 1.6 billion users worldwide, is embroiled in a vicious fight with regulators and protesters over the future of the internet in India – and the rest of the developing world by proxy.

It’s a needless battle that is painting the Silicon Valley wunderkind and his company in an unflattering light, much like how The Social Network made Mr Zuckerberg seem like the most unfeeling bad guy since Darth Vader. In fact, the situation in India is making Facebook look more and more like an evil empire.

Since 2013, the company has been championing something called Internet.org, a programme that delivers a collection of curated websites that people in developing countries can access on their mobile phones without incurring data charges from wireless providers.

Facebook and its partners take care of the fees in exchange for choosing which sites users get to see. The white list generally comprises news, communications, health tools and job resource sites – plus, of course, Facebook.

The effort, touted by Mr Zuckerberg in India as Free Basics, has attracted healthy criticism in both developing and developed nations for a host of reasons. Critics say the programme is self-serving by hooking first-time internet users dir­ectly into Facebook, and that it flies against the basic innovation-without-permission tenet that the web has been built on.

An open letter to the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi urging him to disallow the initiative has attracted more than 1,000 signatories, including 500 start-ups. They argue that allowing any company to pick and choose which websites and online businesses get advantageous access to internet users will doom the start-up ecosystem.

The country’s net neutrality activists, meanwhile, are taking it more personally, suggesting that Free Basics is “poor internet for poor people”. Not only are the curated sites stripped-down from their full versions, they also lack privacy and security protections.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India responded in late December by temporarily banning Free Basics while it conducts a consultation on whether the programme would indeed be harmful to the country’s interests.

Mr Zuckerberg has gone on the offensive with his defence, arguing that opposing such a clearly charitable move is something that only rich elitists have the luxury of doing. The idea behind Free Basics is to bring the next billion people online, whereupon they can then access the full internet.

“Half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed for The Times of India last month. “If we accept that everyone deserves access to the internet, then we must surely support free basic internet services … Who could possibly be against this?”

For Facebook, the answer seems obvious. If charity and altruism really are at the core of its efforts to connect people in developing countries, the company could exempt itself from the list of chosen services delivered. Why not offer Free Basics without Facebook?

Facebook has amassed a huge user base in developed countries, not to mention a market valuation of US$250 billion, without forcing itself on internet users. There’s no reason to believe the company wouldn’t be able to attract a good chunk of the next billion in the same manner, which would make any expenditure on providing no-strings-attached free access a worthwhile investment.

The citizens of India are, after all, probably just as interested in sharing holiday photos and status updates with their friends and families as their counterparts in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

Facebook removing itself from the equation would go a long way to quieting the accusations of self-interest. Moreover, fighting this battle runs a high risk of leaving India’s regulators and business leaders suspicious of the company and its intentions.

Ultimately, the difference between charity and marketing is that the true altruist doesn’t seek anything, including recognition, in exchange for a donation. Those who seek something in return are merely catering to their self-interest.

A self-styled philanthropist like Mark Zuckerberg should know that.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.


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