Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has defended his Internet.org initiative in the face of stiff criticism from India and accusations of ulterior monetary motives.
Internet.org aims to bring the internet to places where it is most needed, but the feeling in India is that, rather than open up the internet to the people, the initiative actually presents a choice-free, sponsored experience.
Zuckerberg was polled on Internet.org during a question and answer session on his Facebook page last week, and his suggestions raised questions in India about net neutrality.
Internet.org was accused of offering Indian consumers a poor experience with no choice, and of having a very apparent self-serving motive.
Zuckerberg returned to his Facebook account to address these criticisms and explain his support for net neutrality.
"We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don't discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It's an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it," he said.
"But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles - universal connectivity and net neutrality - can and must coexist.
"To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some service for free. If someone can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all."
However, Indian entrepreneur Osama Manzar criticised the service in an open letter to Zuckerberg. Manzar, who hosted Zuckerberg on a trip of the continent, said that Internet.org has a lack of options and is a grave disappointment.
"I thought you were working on creating an app that could bring critical and decisive content to the people on the ground in remote areas," he said.
"I also thought you were keen on provisioning access to the internet to the people who are still deprived and live in remote areas.
"I downloaded the Internet.org app. The first screen said I can access this only if I have a connection through a particular operator.
"This is the first time in my life of accessing the internet for over 20 years when I was told I have to access it only through a particular service provider."
Manzar added that some observers might see Internet.org as little more than a front for Facebook and its push for more subscribers.
"While you have been making people believe that Internet.org is a not-for-profit initiative to ensure maximum connectivity to those billions still unconnected, there is a huge confusion and insecurity that is evident from several efforts that are also trying to push Facebook in the name of Internet.org," he wrote.
"As far as Internet.org is concerned, please concentrate on ensuring open access and widespread network access, which will not only secure you more business but mirror ethical conduct."
Another local group, SavetheInternet.in, is also vociferous in its rejection of the current Internet.org proposition and made its stance clear in The Hindustan Times.
"The reason you're reading Mr Zuckerberg defend Internet.org so vehemently is because enough Indians - users, startups, media companies - have realised that Facebook is not, and should not be, the internet," the organisation said.
"In less than 24 hours, many of Facebook's ‘partners' on Internet.org have quit. Internet.org is not open and, despite its name, is not the internet."
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