If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’ve talked about what lengths social media platforms, and Facebook in particular, will go to get new subscribers. One way that Mark Zuckerberg has been working to expand Facebook’s user roster is to work to get Internet in less technologically developed countries via Internet.org.
Per the International Business Times, Internet.org launched in India in February and provides a mobile app that gives access to a variety of sites, including classifieds, news and job searches, for free via India’s fourth-largest telecom company.
Although I’m sure that the program is at the end of the day supposed to be a money generator for Facebook, the social media site is currently in hot water because it’s offering free services. Following the launch in India, a lot of people (Facebook’s competition mainly) have been arguing that Facebook is being awful by not charging for access.
This isn’t really about Net Neutrality
Although it’s been wrapped in the language of Net Neutrality, the reality is that much of the angst has been due the the fact that Facebook is an enormous behemoth of a company with resources that competitors in India can barely even dream of, and that’s difficult to compete with. Bloomberg reports that:
The issue came to the forefront after India’s telecom companies spent months complaining to regulators about unfair competition from Internet companies. Messaging services such as WhatsApp and voice services like Skype compete directly with telecom-provided text messaging and phone services but aren’t subject to the same regulations.
Additionally, opponents of Facebook are arguing that when given the choice between a free Facebook service and a start-up social media service that isn’t free, they’ll chose the free one. (No s-word.) It may not be fair, but unfortunately, that’s how competition works.
The reality is, those who are opposed to Internet.org are essentially saying that Facebook is violating Net Neutrality by not charging for their services since other types of Internet access do incur charges. Although this argument may carry weight with regulators and those in telecommunications, the average subscriber probably takes a dim view of it.
Opponents think people want 100% of nothing
I do understand where Indian start-ups are coming from. They’re basically competing with Goliath, and David is nowhere in sight, nor are any slingshots. As the Russell Brandom writing for the Verge puts it:
…[It] will make it hard for apps and service outside of Internet.org to break into the market, particularly when those decisions are being made a continent away.
Following pressure put on groups that are part of the Internet.org effort, New Delhi Television Limited, Times Group and Cleartrip.com have pulled out, and opponents of Internet.org are hoping to generate more defections. The problem is, at least in my mind, that the average user, you know, the person who is getting the free Internet access, is not nearly as vested in the idea of saving start-ups.
As Zuckerberg wrote as a response to the brouhaha in the Hindustan Times:
If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all. 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… [Net Neutrality] shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.
Yes, having to compete with Facebook sucks. Just ask one of a million nascent social media start-ups in the U.S. However, when the other options involve giving the average user access or expecting them to pay for something they can’t afford, you’re not really giving them an option, you’re just taking away their Internet.