Facebook launched internet.org services in India two months ago but now finds itself in the middle of a net-neutrality storm. While Facebook believes that the internet.org service will help to drive faster adoption of the open Internet, its adversaries argue that by hand-picking the services that are available on the internet.org portal, it is narrowing down the choice of what is available on the Internet.
In defending its approach in India, Facebook will have to become more transparent about its criteria for selecting its content partners. It will also need to demonstrate that internet.org provides an effective bridge to Internet access rather than presenting itself as the Internet per se.
Internet.org is a service that can be offered (for free) to end-users when an operator agrees to zero-rate specific services selected by Facebook and its internet.org partners. The operator is prepared to bear the cost of providing access to these services because it believes that it may be able to upsell its customers to full Internet access. Facebook is using its sophisticated customer engagement tools to help the operators with this upsell process. Many people who live in rural communities in the developing world do not understand or relate to the Internet. Only by seeing the services that it can deliver do they appreciate its value.
Like most people in the developing world, Indians predominantly experience the Internet on a mobile phone. Both European and US regulators have struggled to come to a view as to whether the same net neutrality rules should be applicable on mobile devices as on PCs. In these regions, attitudes about the openness of the Internet developed when usage was almost exclusively via the PC and people used browsers (and search engines) to access the content they wanted.
In the post-PC era, people tend to discover services a little differently. Mobile phone users find the services they want via applications. Device OEMs pre-install many of the most popular applications. In the past, operators used to run their own portals where they would select their content partners (and take a share of the revenue that they generated). But unlike internet.org, these distribution methods have not purported to be an altruistic crusade to bring an essential resource to deprived people across the globe.
India is the only country, so far, where internet.org has faced such criticism. However, there is a precedent for regulatory intervention in the provision of zero-rated data services. Last year the Chilean government ruled that such services violated rules around net neutrality.
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