Net neutrality: Internet.org may ask govt for help

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New Delhi | Updated: April 17, 2015 1:20:41 PM

Mark Zuckerberg reacted, and he reacted fast. On Wednesday, just a few hours after online travel booking site Cleartrip...

Mark Zuckerberg reacted, and he reacted fast. On Wednesday, just a few hours after online travel booking site Cleartrip opted out of Zuckerberg’s pet project Internet.org, which aims to get first time users on the internet, he decided to write a column for Hindustan Times and Mint. He wrote “Internet.org doesn’t violate net neutrality”. The column was online in just over 12 hours, at 11 am.

That’s fast, considering it took months of preparation before Zuckerberg visited India in October last year. That is when he announced that Internet.org, an initiative he started in 2013, will soon have a India chapter. On February 10, the partnership was announced with the Anil Ambani-backed Reliance Communications.

By then Internet.org already had stitched 38 partnerships, mainly with news and information sites, to offer stripped down versions, or basic internet services to first time internet users. All hell broke lose when Cleartrip opted out, and subsequently NDTV, and disaster struck when the Times Group, which owns English dailies Times of India and Economic Times, asked all other publishers on Internet.org to “jointly withdraw”.

Sources also said that Facebook might ask the government to intervene in the matter, as Internet.org does not go against the norms of net neutrality, that is, “no blocking, no throttling, no discrimination”.

“We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use… Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services, or create fast lanes. We will never prevent people accessing other services, and we will not use fast lanes. We’re also open to including all mobile operators in Internet.org, and we’re not stopping anyone from joining,” Zuckerberg wrote in his column.

The stakes are high, and there is a reason for that. In just a couple of months, the platform has gathered more than a few million users in India. Globally, Internet.org has 600 million users. Rcom has only launched Internet.org in six circles, and plans to complete the pan-India launch by end of this year.

At around 10 PM on Wednesday, Reliance and Facebook officials got on a call to discuss the matter. “Facebook officials were surprised with what is happening in India,” said a person in know of the call.

If the Times Group manages to convince other publishers to opt out of Internet.org, only 15, out of 38 partners, will be left, which will mean less user attraction for the platform.

What changed in two months that seems to derail Zuckerberg’s pet project?

On April 6, Airtel Zero was launched which allowed free access of few mobile apps through the platform, by paying a certain amount. There was backlash on social media and Flipkart which was on Airtel Zero opted out.

Meanwhile, Facebook officials explained that unlike Airtel Zero, there is no financial gain involved. But that too isn’t so transparent. Facebook stands to gain, and so are the partners on Internet.org, and Rcom too. Even though the services offered are basic internet services, which do not include sharing of multimedia and other video content, it helps in getting more people addicted to the internet.

The reason is simple. There are around 900 million mobile phone users in India. Only 75%, or 675 million, of that have internet-enabled phones. Of that, around 370 million devices are second-generation internet-enabled, but only 20% of that use internet. Zuckerberg sees a huge opportunity to introduce the remaining population to the internet, and to Facebook and Whatsapp.

As far as RCom is concerned, sources said that the company is getting many new first time users. Once on Internet.org, it is easier to convert full time data users who would buy data packs. For Facebook, the more number of users it has, more eye-balls it generates for its advertising revenue.

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