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The week of May 3, 2015
Issue38-InternetORG2_2500px

Why Facebook’s Internet.org faces backlash in India

By Nithin Coca

When the Facebook-backed Internet.org launched in Indonesia on April 20, it partnered with the country’s major telecom providers to provide a basic suite of Web tools for free. With a population of 250 million, that could mean bringing a lot of Indonesians online—a boon for the country and, not coincidentally, Facebook as well. The company probably didn’t expect its new launch to be tainted by a backlash or that it would come from a country in which Internet.org has already been operating for months: India.

The opposition in India to Internet.org rallied around the idea of net neutrality—fundamentally, a belief that Internet traffic should all be treated the same, without discrimination based on content. From the beginning, activists have criticized Internet.org as breaching net neutrality because it offers free access to a small subset of Internet services—in particular, those invited to join the project.

In India, the net neutrality debate reached a head when one of the country’s largest telecom providers launched a similar service that would let users access certain apps at no charge. The renewed attention to the issue provoked some players to withdraw from Internet.org.

It also earned a response from Mark Zuckerberg. He rhapsodized the Internet’s potential to bring economic and social opportunity to people worldwide; he wrote about his pride that “already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org.” He disagreed that doing so violated net neutrality; Internet.org, he argued, didn’t create fast lanes for preferred traffic or throttle services that refused to pay a toll. It brought more people online, even if their Internet access was limited to services. “To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free,” Zuckerberg wrote. “If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.”

How this all plays out may very well determine if the future of the Web is Facebook, the Internet, or both.

Of course, many have pointed out that getting more users online is in Facebook’s best interest—just as it would be for Google or other competitors. In this instance, it’s not hard to see the business case behind launching free Internet in India and Indonesia. “There is nothing random about those two locations,” said Misiek Piskorski, professor of strategy and innovation at IMD Business School in Switzerland. “India is critical for Facebook’s growth, and Indonesia is also very important.” The world’s second and fourth most populous countries, respectively, they are also the largest untapped Internet markets. With the United States and Europe mostly saturated, Internet giants are eagerly eyeing those potential customers.

Offering free access to your social network or chat app to gain market share is a common tool in emerging markets. Buy a new SIM card in Indonesia and you’ll often find yourself with a few months of free, unlimited access to WeChat (run by the Chinese giant Tencent) or Line (headquartered in Japan), even if you never sign up. Indonesian netizens told me directly that free access offered by mobile operators has been key to Twitter’s popularity. Of course, these deals were made directly between the companies and Indonesian mobile operators, and similar deals exist in India and China.

Internet.org, however, is not Facebook, which makes the project seem disingenuous, according to Piskorski. “Facebook is doing the same thing; unfortunately, it is wrapped it up as a dot-org initiative,” said Piskorski. “They trying to come out pure, like they don’t have ulterior motives, but it is very clear that they want people to use Facebook.”

Internet.org’s goals are remarkably in line with Facebook’s. At last year’s NXTCon conference in Jakarta, a Facebook spokesperson told the audience of mostly young, male Indonesians that the company is working offline in rural Indonesia to ensure that when users get online, they’ll want to get on Facebook first.

Moreover, these strategies are working—at least, in confusing Asians about what the Internet actually is. An oft-cited study by think tank LIRNEasia revealed the perplexing fact that in many Asian countries, including Indonesia, there are more Facebook users than Internet users. The discrepancy, researchers discovered, came from Facebook users who had no idea they were on the Internet. (It’s a phenomenon even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg herself has noted. “People will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the Internet in some places,” she told the Wall Street Journal.)

It’s become common to compare Facebook 1990s-era America Online and to worry about the return of “the walled garden,” inside which users pay for a highly selective subset of the Internet. AOL, like Facebook, aims to provide all things to all users—photos, events, opinions, chat, and possibly in the future, hosted content direct from publishers such as the New York Times. Similar to AOL, Facebook’s ultimate goal is to keep you on the site for as long as possible, looking at photos, reading content, and most importantly, receiving ads. (Also important: sharing behavioral data the company can later mine to serve you more ads.) Unlike AOL, which made its money from subscribers who’d paid for its walled garden and, incidentally, dial-up Internet access, Facebook makes its money from those ads.

Internet.org’s goals are remarkably in line with Facebook’s.

With the arrival of high-speed broadband, especially, AOL suddenly had to compete with the entire Internet when it came to content. That was ultimately the company’s undoing, as more savvy users migrated to faster, Internet-only connection and left AOL’s walled garden to crumble.

Today, however, mobile has supplanted broadband as the high-growth area for new users. In India and Indonesia, many people skip the computer-and-broadband connection entirely, opting for the Internet as it appears on their cellphones—often inexpensive Chinese models. The Internet.org app is billed as the last mile of infrastructure to get these teeming millions online. Or on Facebook.

Ultimately, Facebook needs those millions of users, and while China remains closed, much to Facebook’s chagrin, India and Indonesia are its two biggest untapped markets. Bringing them to Facebook via Internet.org will allow the company to meet projections already built into its rising stock price.

Piskorski believes that the Internet.org model may bring Facebook some short-term gains but may collapse in the long-term. “This is never going to fly—people are going to rebel,” he said. “Or the government will step in. People are so sensitive to the fact that multiple tools are used and don’t like to pay or be constrained to use these tools.” India’s raging debate over net neutrality may support his point.

Indonesian Web users, meanwhile, are known for their ability to use multiple tools. A study at Universitas Atma Jaya in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, found that students there averaged five different primary phones a year, and that many used two phones at the same time consistently. They’re not using those just to access Facebook.

According to Gareth Barkin, a media anthropologist and professor at the University of Puget Sound, who has spent considerable time in Indonesia studying local communities and how they use media, this is a sign of a very fluid market. He points to the bustling street vendors who specialize in mobile phones, which shows “how much more public and social the mobile tech culture is in Indonesia than places like the United States, where many hold onto the same phone through a 2-year contract, and the popular discourse is often critical of tech companies that release new phones too often.”

It remains to be seen how Internet.org will fare in Indonesia, or whether the arguments in India will lead to major changes. The issue may turbocharge the net neutrality and Internet access fights in both countries. How this all plays out may very well determine if the future of the Web is Facebook, the Internet, or both.

Illustration by J. Longo