Facebook fights for free Internet in India, global test-case

Thu Dec 31, 2015 6:51am EST
 
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By Himank Sharma and Douglas Busvine

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India has become a battleground over the right to unrestricted Internet access, with local tech start-ups joining the front line against Facebook Inc (FB.O: Quote) founder Mark Zuckerberg and his plan to roll out free Internet to the country's masses.

The Indian government has ordered Facebook's Free Basics plan to be put on hold while it decides what to do.

The program, launched in around three dozen developing countries, offers pared-down web services on mobile phones, along with access to Facebook's own social network and messaging services, without charge.

But critics say the program, launched 10 months ago in India in collaboration with operator Reliance Communications RLCM.NS, violates principles of net neutrality, the concept that all websites on the internet are treated equally. It would put small content providers and start-ups that don't participate in it at a disadvantage, they say.

"India is a test case for a company like Facebook and what happens here will affect the roll out of this service in other smaller countries where perhaps there is not so much awareness at present," said Mishi Choudhary, a New York-based lawyer who works on technology and Internet advocacy issues.

Also at stake is Facebook's ambition to expand in its largest market outside the United States. Only 252 million of India's 1.3 billion people have Internet access, making it a growth market for firms including Google (GOOGL.O: Quote) and Facebook.

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A motorist rides past a billboard displaying Facebook's Free Basics initiative in Mumbai, India, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui