Tech by VICE

Zuckerberg: Free, Limited Internet Is Better than Net Neutrality and No Internet

The internet mogul is fighting an uphill battle to get Indians to warm up to the platform.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Oct 29 2015, 10:00am

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

We spend so much of our time online these days that it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine what life was like before the internet. It's only taken us 20-odd years to get to this point, but in the process of becoming totally connected, we've managed to leave a lot of people behind: approximately 4 billion people, if you want to put a number on it.

So while the European Parliament and US Congress were busy deciding the future of the internet for everybody last week, nearly two-thirds of the globe was still struggling to get online. Mark Zuckerberg wants to change that.

The Facebook CEO paid a visit to Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi Wednesday as part of Facebook's Townhall Q&A series. Over the course of an hour, Zuck fielded questions from IIT students, largely focusing on Net Neutrality and the future of Internet.org, Facebook's project to bring the Internet to everyone on Earth (but he didn't neglect other pressing issues, such as how to stop Candy Crush spam).

It was his second high profile visit to the country in an attempt to garner support for his controversial brainchild, coming right on the heels of his recent visit to China. His last visit to Delhi was in October of 2014, during which he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the first Internet.org Summit.

Watch the entire Delhi Townhall Q&A.

Internet.org was founded in 2013 year and brought to India in February of this year. It was launched in partnership with the fourth largest Indian telecom company, Reliance Communications, and initially made 38 websites available free of charge to Reliance users (these are now known as Free Basics, thanks to a rebranding move).

India is slated to become the second largest smartphone market in the world next year, although about 70 percent of the population doesn't have a data plan. In a country of over 1.2 billion people, that makes a huge primary audience for Internet.org, and Zuckerberg is committed to connecting every last one of them to (his version) of the internet. In the eight months since its Indian launch, Internet.org has clocked about 1 million users in the country—although only about 20 percent of these users are new to the internet and only 7 percent of the data use was through the platform's free offerings (everyone else paid for extra access).

"Our mission is to connect everyone in the world," Zuckerberg said during the Delhi Town Hall. "You can't do that without connecting the people in India."

Since its launch Internet.org has drawn a lot of criticism, especially from Indians, for being inherently anti-net neutrality. While users who connect to the application in India are connected in some sense, they are only connected to Internet.org's version of the internet. That consists of a handful of basic sites and services, such as Wikipedia, BBC News, Accuweather, astrological forecasts, Malaria-related health info, and of course, Facebook. Other Indian apps were slated for inclusion, but four withdrew in protest.

It is Facebook's fingers in the pot that has a number of critics concerned. They argue that behind Zuckerberg's humanitarian rhetoric, Internet.org is simply a mechanism to cull valuable user data from a massive untapped market (those who aren't yet connected to the internet) via the social media site. In spite of the name, they argue, Internet.org is not the internet, but is rather a form of "economic racism" and a blatant violation of net neutrality.

Zuckerberg is well aware of his critics. Following a wave of protest after Internet.org's unveiling in India, Zuck went on the offensive and published an op-ed in the Hindustan Times, a leading Indian newspaper, defending Internet.org as a bastion of net neutrality.

Based on his comments at the Town Hall Q&A Wednesday, it is clear that Zuckerberg is determined to convince Indians that Internet.org is working for them, rather than against them.

"What we are trying to do, since the Internet is expensive and you can't provide the whole internet for free, are basic programs. Internet.org and Facebook 100 percent support Net Neutrality," said Zuckerberg. "But at the same time, it is possible to take this too far. Some of the people advocating for net neutrality regulations also advocate that you shouldn't be able to do any sort of zero-rating or free services at all. I look at this I say, if you have a student who is getting free access to the internet and wouldn't have had access otherwise, who's getting hurt there?"

Zuckerberg pitched Internet.org as a solution to a number of pressing problems in the country, citing better healthcare, improved education, and access to emergency response services such as AMBER Alert, as among the many benefits of adopting the platform.

"It is an opportunity to help democracy [and] alleviate poverty," he said.

These are certainly lofty goals, but for Zuckerberg's supporters, he seems to already be well on his way to achieving them: he claims to have already brought internet access to over 800 million people around the world and Facebook is on the cusp of rolling out its internet laser drone for testing (something which, once in the field, will allow for massive and rapid expansion of coverage).

Whether or not Zuckerberg will become the internet's gatekeeper for the majority of the world remains to be seen, but for the moment Internet.org's expansion shows no signs of slowing.