How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program

  • 2016-02-03
  • Backchannel

If you wanted to get a glimpse of how hard Facebook can fight when pressed against the wall — a hint of its war chest, the scope of its ambition to access and connect the developing world — take a drive around Mumbai, India’s financial capital, as 2015 turned into 2016.

Everywhere: the billboards. Along the freeway under the smoggy haze. Emblazoned on bus stops — “A Billion Reasons to Support Digital Equality” and an image of an outmoded cellphone. On a busy shopping street, a sign reading “A First Step Towards Digital Equality,” picturing two young women in saris, chatting while looking at a cellphone. The ads ran for two weeks in six cities.

Also everywhere: the newspaper ads, full-page ads — double full-page ads! — featuring Indian farmers and henna-adorned hands and stories of Facebook allowing unconnected people to go online. A full-page op-ed in the Times of India by Mark Zuckerberg himself, in which he asked, “Who could possibly be against this?”

The campaign was to save Free Basics, a Facebook program that gives access to a limited number of websites — including, of course, Facebook — free of charge in 37 developing countries and counting. As of a year ago, Facebook’s telecom partner Reliance Communications allowed mobile subscribers in India to surf sites pre-approved by Facebook without needing a data plan. It’s a central tenet of Internet.org, the division of Facebook charged with connecting the entire world to the internet, and a key part of Zuckerberg’s intended legacy. It’s also Facebook’s entry into Silicon Valley’s good-for-us, good-for-the-world brand of philanthropy, and another way to compete with Microsoft (hooking up developing countries with internet via solar panels and grants), Google (with Project Loon balloons) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (with satellites).

Now, Indian regulators are predicted to ban Free Basics in a decision expected within a week. What happened?