Groups press Facebook to stop ‘disingenuous’ advocacy in India

Dozens of Internet rights groups are pressing Facebook to clean up its “unfounded and divisive” advocacy in India around Free Basics, the social media company’s program to offer limited Internet access for free. 

The groups believe the program is at odds with net neutrality. And in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, they accuse Facebook of making “disingenuous” claims that the opposition is coming from a small group of critics. 

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“It is concerning that Facebook — which says it supports Net Neutrality — would attack those who have sought to enshrine this fundamental principle in law,” the groups wrote in the open letter. “Such a move is an insult to millions in the fast-growing global community that cares about safeguarding the open internet.”

The letter was spearheaded by the U.S.-based advocacy group Access Now. In addition to dozens of groups around the world, the letter was also signed by advocacy groups Fight for the Future and Free Press, which helped bombard the Federal Communications Commission with form letters during the U.S. fight over net neutrality. 

The groups on Wednesday said Facebook’s advocacy is playing into the hands of large Internet service providers by “creating a false impression that there is a grassroots movement opposed to net neutrality.” Those telecom companies, which are adamantly against strict net neutrality rules, are challenging the U.S. regulations in court.  

Facebook’s program is a partnership between the social media company and a number of mobile carriers to bring Internet access to many unconnected parts of the world. In a process known as zero-rating, the Free Basics app allows mobile phone users to have free access to dozens of different websites, including news and jobs sites, Bing search, Wikipedia, ESPN, ACCuWeather, Facebook and others.

The program has faced an uphill battle in India since being unveiled last year. Many argue the plan goes against net neutrality, the principle that no Internet traffic or app should be prioritized above another. And the business model of zero-rating — or exempting certain Internet traffic from data caps — is a controversial topic that is still being debated in the United States. 

Indian regulators suspended Free Basics in late December until telecom companies turned over more information about the terms of the program. 

Amid opposition, Facebook has made a call to action among its users to send form letters to Indian regulators in support of the Free Basics program. Facebook has said the opposition is coming from “a small, vocal group of critics.”

In an op-ed in The Times of India last month, Zuckerberg argued the program is not about boosting Facebook’s commercial interest and asked, “Who could possibly be against this?”

The company did not respond to a request for comment about Wednesday’s letter. 

“As India and other countries determine their Net Neutrality rules, we ask that Facebook meaningfully and respectfully engages with ordinary users, activists and advocates without engaging in unfounded and divisive attacks,” the advocacy groups wrote in the letter Wednesday. 

UPDATE 3:19 p.m. — A Facebook Spokesperson responded: "We respect the authors of the letter, but strongly disagree with their facts and conclusions. First, in the only nationally representative poll conducted in India, 86% of Indians support free basics. Those who aren’t connected want inexpensive, innovative new opportunities to come online. Second, there is no credible evidence that this program discourages access to the full internet — indeed, data from more than 35 countries suggests the opposite. We do not believe it makes sense to halt a program that accelerates economic development for those most in need. Third, the Free Basics program does not discriminate between content providers.  The program has transparent technical requirements and any service that meets them can participate. Fourth, while we share the signers' commitment to net neutrality, we do not believe this important principle was ever intended to deprive poor people of the opportunity to experience the benefits of basic Internet services. Finally, regulators around the world who have looked at this issue have concluded that these types of programs can exist alongside strong net neutrality rules."