Facebook’s Free Internet Offer Backfires in India

January 25, 2016

In 2014 more than three hundred million Indians were regular users of the Internet, representing nearly a quarter of the country. With that number expected to double by 2020, India is the fastest growing online market outside of China. However, there’s a crucial difference in the way these two Asian nations use the Web. While China’s government prohibits foreign digital services like Facebook from setting up shop, India welcomes them.

At least that’s the way it works in theory. After all, just because a company is allowed to do business in another country doesn’t guarantee that the market will accept them. Facebook is currently learning that lesson the hard way as Indian consumers and regulators alike react in strong opposition to its Free Basics Internet initiative. With the help of local telecom companies, the program grants users free Internet access that is limited to Facebook and a handful of other websites from their smartphones. Company founder Mark Zuckerberg has championed Free Basics as a gateway to the Internet for new users. In fact, he claims that half of those who use the service opt to pay for full Web access within a month.

But where Zuckerberg sees a “gateway,” others see a “walled garden.” Opponents of the program say that rather than opening up the Internet to poor users, Free Basics only shows them content approved by Facebook and its backers. They also claim that the social media giant is muscling out local competition due to the promotion’s price tag. Furthermore, many critics do not share Zuckerberg’s confidence that consumers will inevitably make the leap from free Internet access to one they must pay for. This could cause a significant portion of India’s online market to depend on Facebook for the bulk of their web interaction, an outcome that outrages net neutrality activists. Due to these concerns, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India suspended Free Basics’ service until the government completes an investigation of the program’s effects. Their findings are expected to be released in a few weeks, so stay tuned for updates.

 

Questions:

  1. Is Facebook’s Free Basics program a noble way to bring the Internet to those without it, or is the social media giant simply trying to gain a foothold in India’s growing online market?
  1. Would a program like Free Basics work in America? Would it face similar problems and criticisms?

 

Source: “Can’t Give It Away,” The Economist, January 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of MoneyBlogNewz.

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