Facebook's ‘Free’ Internet Program Had a Rough Week

For a gift that is supposed to be so great, Zuckerberg is having a hard time getting people to accept it.

Jan 3 2016, 5:00pm

Photo: Shutterstock.

Up to 3 million Egyptians lost their connection to the internet last week when Facebook's Free Basics program was shut down on Wednesday. The reason for the shutdown of Facebook's controversial Free Basics program, which launched in Egypt in October, is still not clear.

Sources for the New York Times speculated that the Egyptian government was behind the shutdown as it prepares for protests on January 25, which will mark the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising which toppled the Mubarak regime. An unnamed source for Reuters from Egypt's Telecommunications Ministry said that the Egyptian telecom provider Etisalat had only been granted a permit to offer the service for two months and that the permit expired on Wednesday. The official further clarified that the shutdown was not related to security concerns.

Etisalat has yet to make an official statement, although they said they would release a statement on Thursday. At the time of publication, Etisalat had not responded to Motherboard's request for comment. Meanwhile, Facebook told the Associated Press that it "hopes to resolve the issue soon," and that it was "disappointed that Free Basics will no longer be available in Egypt."

Launched in 2013 as Internet.org, Facebook's recently rebranded Free Basics program is Mark Zuckerberg's plan to bring the internet to everyone on Earth. It currently operates in over 35 countries, and brought a few dozen basic services (such as BBC, weather, Wikipedia, and of course, Facebook) to its reportedly 15 million new global users in 2015.

According to Facebook, over 3 million Egyptians had used the service, with 1 million of them going online for the first time. Moreover, of those who go online for the first time using Free Basics, over half of them end up buying full access to the internet within the first 30 days of use.

The shutdown in Egypt capped off a tough week for Zuckerberg's brainchild, which he defended in an op-ed in the Times of India on Monday in response to mounting criticism in the country. Since it launched in India last February, Free Basics has come under fire from a growing contingent of Indians who accuse Zuckerberg's program of violating net neutrality, fostering economic racism, and undermining other plans which could bring internet to the county without a Facebook monopoly.

On December 29, 50 faculty members from Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Science released a statement criticizing Free Basics, calling it "nothing more than a marketing gimmick" and outlining its major flaws. A number of major Indian startup founders have also issued a joint letter calling for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to outline clear regulations preventing telecom and content providers from becoming gatekeepers of the internet. Recently, the founder of PayTM, one of India's largest startups, began sponsoring ads for the Save the Internet coalition (one of the most outspoken opponents of Free Basics in India) on Dish TV and Tata Sky.

This criticism culminated in TRAI asking Reliance Communications, the sole telecom operator providing Free Basics in India, to put the commercial launch of the service on hold in the country. According to a spokesperson from Reliance, the launch has been put on hold as of December 23 while the TRAI gathers responses to a paper it published in mid-December questioning the merits of zero-rating platforms such as Facebook's Free Basics.

The paper is open for comment until January 7 and so far has received nearly 600,000 comments.

In a response to the growing criticism in India, Zuckerberg's Times of India editorial claimed that Free Basics is a bastion of net neutrality, comparing the service to public libraries and hospitals.

"We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet," Zuckerberg wrote. "That's not theory. That's fact…Who could possibly be against this?"

Despite the rhetorical nature of the question, Zuckerberg recognizes that he is fighting an uphill battle in India. This is his second op-ed for one of India's largest papers trying to convince Indians that his service will not result in a Facebook monopoly over India's internet, which follows on the coattails of a visit to Delhi from Zuck himself. Zuckerberg's personal shilling has further been coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign, which as someone currently living in New Delhi, has been difficult to ignore: billboards and posters litter the streets and metro tunnels, Internet.org commercials pollute India's major television channels, and massive advertisements blanket its newspapers.

For a gift that is supposed to be so great, Zuckerberg is sure having a hard time getting people to accept it.