Facebook has renamed what it had termed its internet access enabling platform, “internet.org” as Free Basics by Facebook.
Internet.org will remain as a wide and overarching entity, which includes the provision of free basic services apart from other projects such as enhancing connectivity (through its Connectivity Lab) and an innovation lab.
Briefing a group of Indian journalists at Facebook Headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Chris Daniels, the vice-president of Internet.org said that Free Basics has been launched with the addition of a small set of services across 19 countries — including India — developed on an open platform with new partners.
The announcement of an open platform for websites and services on internet.org had already been made in May 2015 by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The open platform and the new services offered on them are going live with the re-launch of Free Basics by Facebook which is available as a downloadable app as well as a mobile website.
Mr. Daniels asserted that the key motivation behind this endeavour by Facebook was to “enhance accessibility in an affordable manner to the internet”. He quoted data pointing to the persisting digital divide and the slowness in reducing the gap between those who were connected and those who were not, as an imperative for the launch of internet.org.
By Facebook’s estimation based on triangulation of data from ISPs, the company’s own user database among others, internet.org has thus far enabled access to hitherto unconnected users at a rate of 50% faster accessibility through the access to free and basic services, he said. Many of such users had, Facebook claims based on data, moved on to access the wider internet through paying their service provider further for data plans.
Addressing the criticism that internet.org violated the concept of “net neutrality”, Mr. Daniels and his colleagues pointed out that the platform hosting the basic services was open (based on a set of technical criteria) and there was no “exclusivity arrangement” with any telecommunications provider.
Facebook has an ongoing tie-up with Reliance Communications in India to provide services through internet.org.
Facebook’s Strategic Partnerships Director Ime Archibong said that some of the new free and basic services that have added via the open platform in India include websites that cater to healthcare (Meradoctor), farming (mKisan), English learning (Englishdost), weather forecasting (Skymet) etc.
Questioned whether competing applications will be allowed on the platform, Mr. Daniels answered that this would indeed be possible
Facebook’s internet.org had come under widespread criticisms in India because of concerns aboutviolations of net neutrality. The re-branding and “differentiation changes”, including the creation of an open platform on internet.org, Facebook representatives admit, is a way to address those criticisms.
Asked as to why accessibility could not be achieved by providing free data rather than a select set of free applications, Facebook representatives argued that free data access had the potential to be used for high bandwidth applications rather than need and it was better therefore to provide free and basic services on an open platform.
The briefing also included a presentation by Dr. Yael Maguire of Facebook’s Connectivity Labs, featuring futuristic work done by his team to develop internet connectivity using solar-powered airplanes. Dr. Maguire reported that his team had made significant progress in the development of these airplanes (termed “Aquila”) and in utilising laser technologies to achieve connectivity. Mr. Daniels said that “Facebook did not seek to become an internet service provider though and was working on such technologies” to partner ISPs and governments in efforts to enhance high speed connectivity in countries (especially in rural areas) that lacked it.
Internet.org’s rebranding comes in the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook headquarters on the 27th of September where he will jointly speak at a townhall style meeting with Mr. Zuckerberg.
(The writer is in Menlo Park, California at the invitation of Facebook).
Here’s all you need to know about net neutrality and the controversy surrounding the issue.
How does net neutrality affect you?
The internet is now a level-playing field. Anybody can start up a website, stream music or use social media with the same amount of data that they have purchased with a particular ISP. But in the absence of neutrality, your ISP might favour certain websites over others for which you might have to pay extra. Website A might load at a faster speed than Website B because your ISP has a deal with Website A that Website B cannot afford. It’s like your electricity company charging you extra for using the washing machine, television and microwave oven above and beyond what you are already paying.
Late last month, Trai released a draft consultation paper seeking views from the industry and the general public on the need for regulations for over-the-top (OTT) players such as Whatsapp, Skype, Viber etc, security concerns and net neutrality. The objective of this consultation paper, the regulator said, was to analyse the implications of the growth of OTTs and consider whether or not changes were required in the current regulatory framework.
What is an OTT?
OTT or over-the-top refers to applications and services which are accessible over the internet and ride on operators’ networks offering internet access services. The best known examples of OTT are Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, e-commerce sites, Ola, Facebook messenger. The OTTs are not bound by any regulations. The Trai is of the view that the lack of regulations poses a threat to security and there’s a need for government’s intervention to ensure a level playing field in terms of regulatory compliance.