India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) speaks as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens during a meeting at Facebook headquarters in California. Facebook’s Internet.org, which aims to introduce millions more to the internet, is simply a way to get them onto the social network site, many Indians say. Picture: BLOOMBERG
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) speaks as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens during a meeting at Facebook headquarters in California. Facebook’s Internet.org, which aims to introduce millions more to the internet, is simply a way to get them onto the social network site, many Indians say. Picture: BLOOMBERG

IF MARK Zuckerberg hopes to deliver on his vision of bringing the internet to the 4-billion people who lack it, the Facebook chief will first need to make his plan more appealing to salesmen such as Shoaib Khan.

Khan’s perfume and cellphone shop in one of Mumbai’s many slums recently displayed a large blue banner advertising Zuckerberg’s project, called Internet.org, in the back. Another sign for the free package of internet services — offered in India through the cellphone carrier Reliance Communications — was posted prominently in front.

But when asked about his experience with Internet.org, Khan had no idea what it was. After the programme was explained to him, he quickly dismissed it.

"The Reliance connection is very patchy," he says, shaking his head. "I would really have to sell the customer on it."

Facebook’s rocky experience since it brought Internet.org to India in February last year shows that good intentions and technological savvy are not enough to achieve a noble goal like universal internet access.

The scepticism of phone sellers such as Khan and the weaknesses of Facebook’s Indian partner are just two of the problems that have bedevilled Zuckerberg’s project.

Internet.org’s free services — which include news articles, health and job information, and a text-only version of Facebook — are deliberately stripped down to minimise data usage and the cost to the phone company.

Facebook says the primary goal is to show people what the internet is all about. But many Indians want more and complain that the project is simply a way to get them onto Facebook and sign up for paid plans from Reliance.

Internet activists have also attacked Facebook for cherry-picking partners to include in its walled garden rather than simply offering a small amount of free access to the whole internet. Their concerns have struck a chord with the Indian government, which is considering new rules that would govern such free services.

Zuckerberg declined several requests to discuss Internet.org. But he remains passionate about his crusade. "Internet access needs to be treated as an important enabler of human rights and human potential," he told the United Nations recently.

The Internet.org suite, rebranded recently as Free Basics, is now available in 25 countries, from Indonesia to Panama. Facebook is investing heavily in other parts of the project including experiments to deliver cheap Wi-Fi to remote villages and to beam internet service from high-flying drones.

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ZUCKERBERG is also determined to win over the Indian public. In September, he hosted a live streamed chat with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters. And last month, he went to New Delhi, where he took questions from some of Facebook’s 130-million Indian users.

The magnitude of the task ahead was apparent in August to Dharavi, home to as many as 1-million of Mumbai’s poor. Several billboards advertise Freenet, Reliance’s version of Internet.org. But in the neighbourhood’s narrow alleys, where rivulets of raw sewage compete with sandalled feet, there is little evidence that anyone had noticed Internet.org.

A conversation with a dozen cellphone users at a tea shop uncovered no one who had heard of Freenet or Internet.org, but plenty of complaints about Reliance’s sluggish data network and poor customer service compared to the market leaders, Airtel and Vodafone.

At Yahoo Mobilewala, a nearby phone shop named in honour of the US internet company, owner Rizwan Khan offers service from every major carrier. But his stack of Reliance chips — each in a blue Freenet envelope that say "Go free Facebook" — is gathering dust in its display case.

In India, most cellular service is prepaid. Customers typically buy and load credit on a SIM card, often loading it with a couple of rupees worth of data or calls at a time. Phone-card vendors are crucial advisers, educating people about all their options.

"New customers don’t come looking for Freenet," says Khan, who is no relation to Shoaib Khan. Even if Reliance’s network were good, he says, the package excludes WhatsApp, a popular messaging app owned by Facebook, and users must pay to see the photos in their Facebook feeds.

"If you have to pay for data, what’s the point of calling it free?" he says.

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PHONE-CARD sellers also tend to push whatever makes them the most money. Khan says that another carrier had recently awarded him his choice of a Hero motorcycle or 45,000 rupees for signing up 1,000 customers. Reliance, however, offered nothing similar.

In more than two dozen interviews in poor suburbs of Mumbai, a reporter found several people who had tried Internet.org but only one who used it regularly — a 23-year-old man who said he used the free version of Facebook Messenger on the app to chat with friends when he ran out of money on his prepaid account.

Chris Daniels, the Facebook executive who leads Internet.org, says the company is primarily trying to reach people who are completely new to the internet.

He says about 1-million people have been introduced to the internet in India because of the programme.

After their first 30 days online, he says, about 40% of them became paying data customers, 5% stuck with free services only and the rest of them left.

"This is a programme that is working to bring people online, and working incredibly well," Daniels says. "Connectivity is something that improves people’s lives. It’s an enabler for people to be able to help themselves find jobs, help themselves improve their health situation, improve their education for themselves and their children."

Gurdeep Singh, CE of Reliance’s consumer business, defends the quality of his company’s network, but acknowledges that it needs to do more to raise awareness of Freenet and persuade retailers to promote it.

"This is a slow process," he says. "We are fighting this huge battle against digital illiteracy."

According to Reliance research, 36% of phone-card sellers don’t have a phone capable of internet access, which makes them poor ambassadors for the concept.

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BUT Singh says Reliance is committed to Freenet, which was initially limited to seven states, and plans to offer it nationally soon. "India is at the stage where everyone must get access to the internet," he says.

Facebook’s approach has run into huge criticism from internet advocates in India, who see it as an attempt by the world’s largest social network to become the gatekeeper to the internet for a new generation of users.

"On the open internet, everyone is equal," says Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama, an Indian news site, who has vociferously opposed Internet.org. "On Internet.org, Facebook is the kingmaker."

Pahwa helped organise a campaign called Save the Internet, which rallied 1-million Indians to press regulators to stop Internet.org and establish rules protecting the neutrality of the internet. That principle, which is also a subject of intense debate in the US and Europe, says that internet access providers should give customers equal access to all content.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is still mulling potential regulations. However, the agency’s chairman Ram Sewak Sharma is sceptical of Internet.org. "Maybe they have wonderful objectives, but the way it is being implemented, that’s not really appropriate," he says.

Daniels says Facebook had been listening to all the criticism and has made many changes to Internet.org including opening it to other companies that wanted to offer free services on the platform. "We always appreciate feedback, in whatever form it comes," he says.

New York Times