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Facebook's free Internet service 'Free Basics' stirs debate in India

Mark Zuckerberg has tried to convince Indians to support Facebook's new Internet campaign, Free Basics. The app claims to provide free Internet services but has stirred a debate about independent access to the web.

"In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people's well-being that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an article addressed to Internet users in The Times of India on Monday.

Drumming up arguments in favor of his new free Internet campaign in India, named Free Basics, Zuckerberg said, adding "We know that when people have access to the Internet they also get access to jobs, education, healthcare, communication….We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the Internet."

What is Free Basics?

Free Basics is a service - in the form of an app or a web platform - that offers people free access to websites and aims to offer poor people access to the Internet.

It is the Indian avatar of Internet.org that was launched by Facebook in emerging countries like Colombia, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya, in which Facebook acts as a mediator between the user and partner websites. Right now, Reliance Communications, headed by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, is Zuckerberg's only partner in India. Under the terms of agreement, websites register for Free Basics and Facebook decides who will participate.

Tim Berners-Lee

World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee has spoken against Free Basics

The app was suspended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in early December without giving any reason. Since then, 3.2 million mobile users sent a petition asking the government not to ban Free Basics, but activists say the service suffocates net neutrality, that is, equal access to all websites on the Internet.

The problem

According to Indian news website, The Quint, "The first problem with Free Basics is that Facebook intercepts and reads all your data, via their Internet proxy…it's impossible to get any information from your customers without Facebook knowing about it, including passwords or credit card information."

The end user is still the loser in the bargain, according to Internet activists who run the blog "Save the Internet." "Facebook doesn't pay for Free Basics, telecom operators do. Where do they make money from? From users who pay… Free Basics isn't about bringing people online. It's about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything remains paid."

Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee has also spoken out against Facebook's Internet.org. In an interview with the Guardian, he said, "In the particular case of somebody who is offering… something which is branded Internet, it's not Internet, then you just say no. No it isn't free, no it isn't in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of Internet connectivity."

Discussion on Twitter

The debate has taken on big proportions on Twitter, where activists and celebrities alike are joining hands to promote net neutrality. Bollywood music composer Vishal Dadlani came out with a video in favor of equal access to all websites:

Some users have also criticized Facebook's aggressive marketing for Free Basics:

This user has questioned the whole intention behind the project.

Internet activist Pranesh Prakash said privacy and control were as good as gone with an app like Free Basics:

In fact, he even called for quitting Facebook completely in favor of a neutral Internet.

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