Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is on a two day India tour where he met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Zuckerberg’s prime intent to visit India is to promote his Internet.org organization, making internet connectivity free to everyone.
As of June 2014, Facebook gets about 1.32 billion active users per month. There’s very little scope for Facebook to grow from here unless it bring people with no Internet access on board.
Do we need it?
However, what needs to be questioned is whether this connectivity will be as free as it is now. The answer is definitely a NO. Users will be able to access content from only companies who signup with the organization. This is not the world wide web as we know. Imagine, Airtel and Flipkart partner with Internet.org to provide free access to Flipkart from Airtel’s network. If you are on a Vodafone network, you won’t be the beneficiary of the so called free Internet connectivity.
This is not something new, telcos and services have been historically partnering to drive data consumption in India. These steps were necessary in the Indian market to bring the Indian mobile users Online, however, a large scale implementation of such tactics might harm the Indian telecom market and risks controlling data tariff in a price sensitive country. If Venture capital backed services (like Flipkart) subsidize the data tariffs for consumers, there’s a risk that telecom operators might promote these services over free-to-access any service Internet as we know of. Imagine that with the above example deal, Flipkart is available for free from all telcos, while a non VC backed service, which might not have partnered with Internet.org, is not accessible for free. In this case, users are definitely going to access Flipkart over the non VC backed service.
The Indian government and the media needs to recognize these pitfalls before the Internet connectivity in india falls prey to capitalist ideology and is converted into a controlled entity, where select few companies have the privilege and an added advantage to offer its service to the masses. Irrespective of our reservations, if Internet.org succeeds in its intentions and is able to get millions on Indians Online, will it stop there? Once done, there’s never going back. Think of it as a life long highway toll that you’ll be paying – only those who can afford to pay the toll can access the destination.
Keep in mind that telcos like Airtel and Vodafone are already asking services like Google and Facebook to pay to allow users to to access their services. For telcos, Internet.org’s timing couldn’t be any more perfect.