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Facebook’s Internet.org in India: playing king-maker for some businesses


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by Riddhi Mukherjee and Nikhil Pahwa

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Facebook and Reliance Communications have partnered to offer free data access to a bunch of websites to Reliance customers through Internet.org. Initially these services, which will also include free access to Facebook, will be available to Reliance customers in Mumbai, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Kerala telecom circles. The services are expected to be extended to the rest of the country in a phased manner, though no specific timeline has been revealed yet.

Yesterday we had reported that such a move might be in the offing after we received the following message while trying to access Internet.org over Wi-Fi in India:

You must be on the Reliance Network to use Internet.org. If you’d like to access these websites for free, use a SIM card from Reliance.

The list of services (with categories & name of corresponding websites and Our Take):

– Careers & Jobs: TimesJobs, Babajob
Our take: Why not Naukri.com, which is by far the most popular and most used jobs portal in the country?

– Education & Knowledge: Wikipedia, wikiHow, Dictionary.com, Translator, Reuters Market Lite, Jagran Josh
Our take: Why not the HRD Ministry’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform SWAYAM? Or online course sites like Coursera or Udemy? Or even About.com.

– Health & Social Welfare: Facts for Life (UNICEF), BabyCenter & MAMA, Girl Effect (Nike Foundation), iLearn (UN Women), Malaria No More, Socialblood, and AP Speaks
Our take: Why not HelpingDoc, Qikwell, MDhil, Lybrate?

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– News: BBC News, Times of India, India Today, NDTV, BBC News, IBNLive, Aaj Tak, Amarujala.com, Daily Bhaskar, Maalai Malar, Maharashtra Times, Jagran, Newshunt, and Manoramanews.com
Our take: Why not Hindustantimes, Hindustan, Livemint, KannadaPrabha, OneIndia, Webdunia, Indian Express, FirstPost, HuffingtonPost, CNBC TV18, Raftaar.com, Bhojpuria.com or many many others?

– Search: Bing (from Microsoft)
Our take: why not DuckDuckGo or Google Search?

– Social: Facebook, Facebook Messenger
Our take: Why not Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest, Instagram or Whatsapp?

– Sports: ESPN Cricinfo
Our take: Why not Starsports.com, Cricbuzz.com*, or Network18’s Cricketnext?

– Utility: OLX, Astro, Cleartrip, AccuWeather
Our take: Why not JustDial, Getit*, Ganeshaspeaks, Quickr, Sulekha.com, Yatra, GoIbibo, MakeMyTrip?

Here’s the problem with Internet.org

Apart from issues of making Facebook the gateway to the web and the primary source of access to content publications (which we had explained in more detail here), who selects which sites are offered free via Internet.org and why? By giving access to these sites, Facebook and RCOM essentially ensure that consumption for some portals become free, and some remain paid. The Indian consumer is cost-conscious, and they’re likely to lean towards what is cheaper. This puts RCOM and Facebook in a situation where they are king-makers in particular, and can effectively extract a payment for ensuring that some sites dominate others. There are competitive issues here, and the pipe (RCOM) here is not neutral when it comes to pricing of access. It violates net neutrality.

Three principles of Net Neutrality:

Rule 1: All sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators shouldn’t block certain sites or apps just because they don’t pay them. No gateways should be created, in order to give preferential discovery to one site over another.
Rule 2: All sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP/telco level): This means no speeding up of certain sites because of business deals. More importantly, it means no slowing down (throttling) of some sites.
Rule 3: The cost of access must be the same for all sites (per Kb/Mb or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating”. In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access: all lanes are slow.

Also Read: What Mark Zuckerberg didn’t say about Internet.org

Disclaimer: Cricbuzz’ parent company Times Internet and Getit are advertisers with MediaNama

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  • @AsuraVeera

    ha ha.. nobody seems to have noticed that this is a walled garden initially. are journalists naive? or stupid?

  • sketharaman

    The last time I checked, Net Neutrality wasn’t yet a law in India. Why do you keep harping about it so much? If you’re running short of story ideas, why don’t you cover more serious topics involving clear violations of established law by ISPs and MNOs around Internet connectivity uptime and speed?

    • navinkumar

      Net Neutrality is a big issue my friend. The same had happened with Radio where the neutrality over who can transmit Radio had been hampered but that topic for some other day. If some sites get additional advantage over others then people will never make the switch to paid plans and the entire internet will become a small hole of limited websites. People of India have a voice and to raise is the best way forward. Please check examples that have happened in Myanmar and also this Hindu article http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/i-think-wikipedia-should-be-objecting-to-howinternetorgis-using-their-site/article6882515.ece to get an idea of the seriousness of the issue.

      • sketharaman

        Okay, I understand what’s the big deal. Today, I pay top dollar to 3 ISPs to theoretically get access to all websites and practically get access to virtually no websites. The way I understand this, I can stop paying, switch to free Internet and can get access to a few limited websites. Sounds like a great deal to me.

        • navinkumar

          How do u think these guys give you such a service? They don’t charge you doesn’t mean that the service is free. They will recover their money by using your data, showing you more advertisements and now you ought to see these ads because voila .. U r in a free plan! Interest is the basis of freedom. Freedom to use websites, freedom to content and freedom to express but because of this service your scope gets limited to a single point of view!

        • sketharaman

          Today, I pay money to my ISP for Internet connection. Its dialer shows its own ads. Upon establishing connection to the Internet, which doesn’t always happen, it takes me to a landing page, where it shows me more ads of its own and third-party’s. All media websites I subsequently visit, including Google’s SERP pages, show ads. To me, a few more ads resulting from a free Internet service hardly matters. And, if the free ISP really uses the right technology to analyze my data, they may actually show me more relevant ads, which is a good thing. As for limiting my choice, if my free ISP’s plan doesn’t let me visit a website that I’m interested in visiting, there’s nothing stopping me from paying for an additional Internet connection with another ISP that doesn’t block that website. In any case, I’m paying for 3 ISPs today and getting lousy connection quality. At first, I was a bit ambivalent about this new Internet.org / Reliance thing. But, after going through this comment session, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s a great thing for me.

        • navinkumar

          Ok. I give u a scenario in India where you are sitting in a rural area with no internet connection currently. Now, after few years you come to know about internet and see reliance providing free internet *conditions applied*
          U start using that internet connection and its a win win situation. Happy ending :-)
          Incorrect ! Your free connection makes you vulnerable to use only the limited service provided and in a country like ours where more than 50% people live in rural area with income less than 40rs / day makes you use only free limited service. That is against the basic right of availability of all websites at the same speed and same price. The point which we must be pitching for is free internet instead of this small picture of its good for me.
          Take example from AAP where they have plans ahead of giving free WiFi in entire Delhi (Not an AAP supporter). Today they are giving you free internet for some websites and tomorrow they will stand up and say pay for these websites ! The point is net neutrality is lost! (Too many exclamations!) Nothing against or for you put I just want to say is keep the bigger picture in mind :-) ( a lot said )

        • sketharaman

          Of course this infringes upon Net Neutrality but I’ve explained why, personally, I couldn’t care less. Not being a bleeding heart liberal, I don’t take cudgels on behalf of the downtrodden and so forth. But, now that you’ve raised the subject, I can bet that the demographic you’ve described would anyday take access to “some websites for free” over their current situation where – if I understand your comment correctly – they can’t afford “all websites for cost”. Free WiFi in Delhi will be useful only when people have electricity and laptop / tablet / smartphone (“device”). Will the said demographic afford to buy the device on its own or will you be shortly urging me to think of an even bigger picture and root for Free Device? Personally, I think these decisions should be put to referendum or at least go through a public consultation process, as it happens in Switzerland, UK, etc.

        • navinkumar

          OK sir. Now let’s get back to where the comment started. You didn’t care less. Now you are up for a referendum. That means I was successful in instilling an idea that net neutrality is important. Also, India wants people like you to come up and bring solutions which solves everyday or a foresighted problem. Anyways cheers

        • sketharaman

          I still don’t care about infringement of NetNeutrality. In fact, I support the opposite, which I’ll call ProNetChoice. I think so will others of the said demographic. I proposed a referendum only for them to make their own choice – mine is already made – instead of some comment thread on MediaNama deciding it for them.