Home Editorials Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org aka Free Basics Dilemma in India

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org aka Free Basics Dilemma in India

Facebook wants to expand its footprint beyond the urban centers of the world where it has already made a mark for itself. And in its quest towards doing so, it is keen on tackling the biggest impediment to it reaching its goal, that of enough internet penetration in the urban and semi-urban regions of the world.

India already is among the priority countries for Facebook, and there are several reasons for it to be so.

First off, it is a huge country, both in terms of landmass and population. This makes the country and its people a single huge block of resources.

Secondly, Facebook already enjoys immense popularity in India which cuts across age or social standing. With a registered user base of a staggering 400 million and monthly active user base of 138 million, India happens to be the second biggest market for the social media giant outside of the US. Such is Facebook’s popularity in India that it has emerged as the favorite hunting ground for almost anything that one can think of, for every emotion applicable to humans and any scenarios and festivities.

Companies take to Facebook for promoting their wares while comments made in the respective Facebook pages are paid heed to by service providers to improve their standing.

Almost synonymous with the rise in Facebook’s usage in India is the growing popularity of smartphones in the country.

However, even with so many factors to its advantage, there still are vast swathes of a region and its populace that remain out of bounds of Facebook. These typically are the rural or semi-urban regions where telecom operators are yet to provide internet services to or have just started doing so.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to zero in on these regions to further proliferate Facebook via its Internet.org initiatives. The latter essentially is a partnership between Facebook and six other companies – Nokia, Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Opera Software with the aim of introducing internet service in the less developed regions of the world.

The idea is noble no doubt though issues crop up beyond this point. With backers of Internet.org willing to roll out internet services either completely free or at affordable rates, the trade in is that only a select few sites will be accessible. It is this that has run into a lot of friction with champions of net neutrality that aim to make the internet the perfect level playing field all over the world.

First used in 2003 by the Columbia University media law professor, Tim Wu, Net Neutrality refers to the principle of treating all data the same while withholding from discriminatory practices based on ‘user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication’.

It is the Net Neutrality principle that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has cited as a reason for turning down Facebook’s ambitious Free Basics program which has been likened to an attempt of creating a walled garden within another. This, notwithstanding the fact that almost a million users had opted for the Free Basics program in the country.

Undeterred by the TRAI ruling, Zuckerberg has stated he remains determined to explore other options of penetrating further in India even though his company formally announced the withdrawal of the Free Basics program in the country. Reliance Communications, Free Basics’ telecom partner in India, has stated it will make the service a paid one.

With big plans in the kitty, the decision naturally was a bit hard for Facebook to swallow. Things took an uglier turn following board member Marc Anderson’s alleged racist comments linking India, its people, and economic policies to colonialism. Fortunately, things settled down even before it could go out of control with Zuckerberg himself getting into the damage control act while Anderson too tendered his unconditional apology for his comments.

However, it yet remains unclear as to what other options Zuckerberg might be exploring with his plans of ramping up presence in India. Statistics alone are proof enough of the Facebook CEO remaining committed to what can be considered the largest market to some of its other services.

For instance, WhatsApp is already wildly popular in India with about 56 percent of Internet users rely on the messaging app every day.

Also, with more than 500 million registered users out of the 900 million on a global scale (as per Sept 2015 data), India happens to be the biggest market for the Facebook-owned multi-platform messaging service as well.

Facebook also stated those hooked on to Instagram has more than doubled in India in just a years’ time even though its refrained from committing to any real figures. As per a November 2015 survey, Instagram has more than 400 million active users in the world.

With so much at stake, it’s only natural for Zuckerberg to look for other ways of reaching out to the rest of the population that are yet to join the internet age.