Mark Zuckerberg addressed a packed house in IIT Delhi in his annual townhall session yesterday. Though a number of questions regarding Free Basics and net neutrality could not be asked, maybe because of the pre-screening process, Zuckerberg did take one question on the subject.
A Bangalore-based professor asked Mark Zuckerberg whether Facebook was fully in support of net neutrality; the only pointed question asked in the session on a topic that has generated a lot of cynics in the country.
In response, Zuckerberg said that net neutrality is an important principle and that Facebook supports the principle in terms of internet regulations as well as in their own work. He said that confusion exists since a lot of countries are still figuring out what they want in terms of net neutrality regulations. Coming to the topic of India, a country which, Facebook sees as one of the most important market for Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “A lot of stories have come from India that only limited set of services are available (on Internet.org/Free Basics). This could not be further from the truth.”
While reiterating Facebook and Free Basic’s support for the concept of net neutrality, he stressed the need for Zero Rating programs and regulations that don’t hurt users. Explaining the need to have a limited set of basic services on Internet.org (Free Basics), he said, “Internet is expensive to provide. The publishers who do not require high bandwidth, who do not have rich media, which are not affecting operators, are the ones who will be zero rated through this platform.”
He cited examples of the US and the EU, where there are different set of rules for zero rating programs. “If a fisherman in a village can sell his fish through the internet and provide for his family because he has free access, that is good. Nobody is getting hurt because of zero rating. We want more people on the internet. So we will be prioritizing things like zero rating but we will continue to strongly support net neutrality,” he said.
Taking a dig at online petitions filed against Internet.org and in support of net neutrality, he pointed out that most of the people supporting net neutrality have an internet connection. “We must also ensure that the people who don’t have the privilege of internet access don’t get sidetracked. People without access cannot sign an online petition for internet access. It is our moral responsibility,” he added.
Despite, Zuckerberg’s numerous assurances, it seems like he has failed to sway most of the opponents of Internet.org/Free Basics , if comments on Twitter are anything to go by.
A primary reason for this is that critics feel Facebook has always been dodgy about answering questions on this topic. Even in earlier townhalls, all questions were screened carefully and most questions pertaining to the topic of net neutrality and Internet.org were not passed on. Even journalists attending the event are pre-screened.
In fact, in this year’s townhall, the session moderator was visibly reluctant to hand over the microphone to the lady wanting to ask the question about net neutrality.
Critics are also concerned that concepts like zero rating will hand over too much power to the telco, which might then be misused at the expense of subscribers. And though, Zuckerberg insists that Facebook is not filtering potential partners on Free Basics, there is a stringent list of demands than need to be met by candidates. Perhaps, Zuckerberg’s intentions are indeed as altruistic as he says, but townhalls like these are devoid of substance if the vast majority of questions remain unaddressed and it will not do anything to endear him to the critics. Netizens feel what Facebook needs to do is have a transparent and open discussion on the topic of net neutrality, which is the need of the day.
Also read: You cannot have a connected world by leaving India out: Mark Zuckerberg @IIT Delhi