Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has responded to recent allegations that the company’s Internet.org initiative potentially undermines net neutrality.
In a Facebook status update (where else?) Zuckerberg claims that Internet.org has already brought connectivity to more than 800 million people across nine countries. At least, that’s the number of people who can use the service, not the number who have used it.
The update follows criticisms from tech companies across India, several of which have severed relationships with Internet.org in the last week. One of those companies, Cleartrip, explained its reasoning for breaking ties with the group:
[T]he recent debate around #NetNeutrality gave us pause to rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast. What started off with providing a simple search service has us now concerned with influencing customer decision-making by forcing options on them, something that is against our core DNA.
I’ve argued in the past that offering free access to some services while charging for access to others is a threat to net neutrality. (That argument was, fittingly enough, made when a wireless carrier started offering free access to Facebook.)
It might not seem that way. Most people seem to think net neutrality is only threatened when someone is charged more to access a service, not less. But the underlying principle — that a bit is a bit is a bit — is endangered in both cases.
Here’s how Zuckerberg responds to some of that criticism:
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.
Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes — and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected.
The conflict here boils down to a simple question: is it better to have no Internet access if it isn’t “free” in the idealistic sense of the word, or to be able to access some services for “free” in the economic sense? Cleartrip has chosen the former; Zuckerberg, Facebook and, Internet.org are pursuing the latter.