Facebook Loses a Battle in India Over Its Free Basics Program


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Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, speaking in New Delhi in 2014. He personally lobbied for the company’s Free Basics program.

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Adnan Abidi/Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, Mark Zuckerberg has had a grander vision than just connecting the more than one billion people who already use Facebook: He wants to connect the entire world.

That effort hit a major roadblock on Monday, when Indian regulators banned free mobile data programs that favor some Internet services over others.

The regulations, issued after months of intense public debate over how to extend the Internet to India’s poorest citizens, effectively block Facebook’s controversial Free Basics program in the country.

Free Basics offers people no-fee access to a text-only mobile version of the Facebook social network, as well as to certain news, health, job and other services. Facebook describes the program as a way to introduce the poor and the technologically unskilled to the potential of the Internet.

Even with that noble aim, Facebook miscalculated in introducing the program in India. While Facebook expected to be welcomed with open arms, its message to the country focused on itself rather than the broad coalition of telecommunications firms supporting the effort, experts said. That, in turn, fostered a climate of distrust about Facebook’s future intentions in the country and led to the questions from regulators.

India’s decision also puts Facebook in an unusual position in the debate over net neutrality, which says that Internet providers should provide equal access to all web content. In the United States, Facebook has been a proponent of net neutrality. Yet the Indian regulators’ ruling, which furthers net neutrality, puts Facebook in a losing position.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s stumble in bringing his signature project to India underscores the difficulties of widening Internet access to the world at large, which companies like Google and Xiaomi of China also are trying. While there is enormous potential upside in offering web services to hundreds of millions of people who are currently not digitally connected, regulators and local officials have proved much more difficult to navigate than these tech companies anticipated.

”There has been such a great deal of spotlight on a single Internet issue,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, an Indian news site, who has strongly opposed Facebook’s efforts. “I don’t think Internet policy in India will ever again be made in a vacuum, a black box.”

Free Basics came out of Mr. Zuckerberg’s program for universal Internet access, which was started in 2013 under an initiative called Internet.org. The idea was to simplify phone applications to run more efficiently and to offer these apps to users in developing countries. Half a dozen of the world’s tech giants, including Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm and Ericsson, agreed to work with Facebook as partners on the initiative.

Free Basics is now in 38 countries, from Indonesia to Panama. Facebook is investing heavily in other parts of the project, including experiments to deliver cheap Wi-Fi to remote villages and to beam Internet service from high-flying drones.

In India, where Facebook already has at least 132 million users, the company began offering Free Basics last year through Reliance Communications, a local mobile phone carrier. A Reliance spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The program quickly became the target of critics, who said that it was an attempt to steer unsophisticated new Internet users to Facebook and other services that were working with the company. They argued that Free Basics and other so-called zero rating programs, which are a set of apps or sites that a mobile operator or I.S.P. does not charge customers to use, violated the concept of net neutrality.

Facebook embarked on a blitz of paid lobbying and advertising to promote Free Basics, spending millions of dollars in media campaigns to convince locals its offering would be positive for the population. The company ran special banners in the Facebook news feeds of Indian users urging them to petition the government to allow Free Basics. Mr. Zuckerberg personally lobbied against the new rules, including writing an opinion column in The Times of India.

Experts said that campaign may have had an adverse effect on Indian thinking. Locals were wary of the company’s unknown long-term plans for advertising or other parts of Facebook’s business.

“The phrase ‘no free lunch’ translates pretty well into a lot of different languages,” said Josh Levy, an advocacy director for Access Now, an international digital rights organization.

The issue of these Internet services has been debated in other countries, including the United States, where the Federal Communications Commission is studying whether zero-rated services comply with its own net neutrality rules.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which announced the new regulations on Monday, said in its policy document that mobile phone companies should not be allowed to “shape the users’ Internet experience” by providing free access only to certain services.

Since most Indians are not yet online, the agency noted, such programs have great power to shape a newcomer’s whole view of the Internet.

“What we want is for everyone in the world to get access to the same Internet,” said Mr. Pahwa of MediaNama. “The Internet is not just a collection of 130 websites. We don’t want to be forced to make a choice between access and net neutrality.”

The Cellular Operators Association of India said it was disappointed with the decision. The regulations “constitutes a welfare-reducing measure of high concern by blocking a possible avenue for our less advantaged citizens to move to increased economic growth and prosperity by harnessing the power of the Internet,” said Rajan S. Mathews, director general of the group.

In a post to his personal Facebook page on Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg also pushed back. “Connecting India is an important goal we won’t give up on, because more than a billion people in India don’t have access to the Internet,” he wrote.

“We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that’s why we’re so committed to connecting them,” he wrote.

Correction: February 8, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of countries where Free Basics is offered. It is 38, not 25.



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