Will IIT Delhi open gates for Facebook's Internet.org?

 Taslima Khan        Last Updated: October 28, 2015  | 19:40 IST
Zuckerberg addresses 900 students at IIT Delhi's iconic Dogra Hall.

Associate Editor Taslima Khan
Indian startups and youth have been one of the world's most critical lot, openly criticizing Facebook's internet.org initiative which proposes to give a select few internet services to the so-called under-non-internet connected masses who do not have access to internet. In fact 'access' was the most oft-repeated word in Zuckerberg's speech.

To quote him, "Internet access created jobs, helps reduce poverty."

A longer-term solution to propagate internet access is precisely the job of the telecom companies and for the government to frame conducive policies for setting up high-quality and dependable internet infrastructure. But Zuckerberg is promoting internet.org as a much quicker solution to solve the problem of access. In his 15 minute speech, he asserted his belief in the principle of net neutrality but he tempered it with 'no one hurting' if the under-privileged get free access to internet services. "If a student gets free access to internet which helps her in her homework, who is hurting there," he said.

Zuckerberg top qoutes:Zuckerberg in Delhi

Why IIT Delhi? Zuckerberg is clearly trying to leverage the IIT brand to push internet.org and let it gain mass momentum. Young techies and startup companies are the most ardent critics of Facebook's internet.org which many say goes against the principle of net neutrality. However Facebook has given a new flavor to it. After all the sharp criticism Facebook faced for its anti net-neutral  internet.org, it has sought to make it more specific and targeted towards the internet have-nots by recently re-branding it to Free Basics. Interestingly the announcement for the re-branding came days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's townhall at the headquarters of the company at Menlo Park. As per the re-branding, the Free Basic app allows all sorts of app developers to launch their applications, provided they meet certain criteria. Also Facebook says there are no such filters to promote certain apps over others. At present Free Basics provides upwards of 250 services in 19 countries including India. As per Zuckerberg's address on Wednesday, about 1 million Indians have access to internet.org yet.

Being in the heart of India's capital, Delhi and more importantly being the place of origin for a host of tech startups, including ecommerce giant Flipkart, IIT Delhi is an apt place to win support and clarify doubts and intentions. What do startups think of it?

He definitely got a great audience with technologically advanced people numbering 900. 

"Coming to IIT Delhi is like coming to the Mecca of technology and that can certainly help propagate any message," says Rohit Shroff, co-founder at travel portal Holidify who hails from IIT Bombay.

"Students would be influencers in their own friends central. That can help in convincing other people," says Shroff. The technology head at Holidify was among the select few who got a VIP invite to the townhall from Facebook, thanks to attending a Facebook event sometime back. Most people that added up to this number were chosen through a lottery.  

Zuckerberg, in a slight manner attacked those who are fighting for net neutrality, saying that these are precisely those people who already have access to internet.

"We have a moral responsibility to provide access to those people who do not have a voice."

Will these overtures help him win over the larger startup community in India?

India is the second largest market for Facebook after the US with over 130 million Facebook users. Total number of internet users in the country, however is going to leapfrog that of the US and by 2018, India is projected to have 500 internet users. India is therefore a mouth-watering opportunity for Facebook to drive its revenues.

Zuckerberg's consistent attempts to connect with India are proven by him coming to India just a few weeks after he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his headquarters in California. Add to that his visit last year couple with that of Facebook's COO Sherill Sandberg, and you will know that surely there is a serious agenda behind.

His attempts to enter the India market are reminiscent of the efforts to enter the China market, when he in 2010 and 2011 visited China to enter the China market, a market only less important than India for Facebook since Facebook couldn't make it in. China for all its closed economy policies and that it has its own home grown networking sites such as Renren and 51.com to protect. With literally no such competition from India, it will be anyone's guess that it is in a much better position to make the inroads into the territory of lesser privileged, non-internet connected population that is likely to convert fast into internet users in the coming years. Facebook currently has one million Indians using Facebook's internet.org.

How far will he be successful is yet to be seen. Most startups that this reporter spoke to were against internet.org. "I am not a supporter of internet.org but of free internet. I believe it does not have to be restricted or controlled by Facebook or any particular company," says Holidify's Shroff.

"The rules for free internet should come from organizations like Bit Coin which is a neutral organization with rules and regulations that apply to every country."


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