Facebook, Google fight blocking India’s poor from world wide web

In April of last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lees World Wide Web Foundation filed comments with Indias telecom regulator arguing that Facebooks zero-rating plan was a short-term gain that wasnt worth the long-term cost to the country. The Foundation explained that zero-rating is counter to its vision for all of the people to have access to all of the internet, all of the time.

Like Sir Berners-Lee, other US Net neutrality activists have also directed their moral outrage, public relations expertise and funding to attack Facebooks zero-rating initiatives both in India and the US.

With all of the high moral dudgeonbeing batted around, it is worthwhile to step back and look at whatis fueling this worldwide uprising. Simply put, zero-rating is one side of a global race among US-based internet companies to get five billion eyeballs not yet online using their services as fast as possible. In other words, it is about business.

In this regard, the US Net neutrality priesthood is largely correct that Facebooks Free Basics isnt entirely altruistic by not counting access to Facebook against a Free Basics users data allowance, Facebook gets first dibs on those eyeballs in a way, that say, Google cant.

But the effort to kill zero-rating is not entirely altruistic either. Theres something else at play as well: Whats good for Facebook is bad for another SiliconValley company (cough, cough Google). Remember, if Facebook grabs those eyeballs first, Google is shut out from being the first entry point or gateway for billions of new internet users. In fact, Free Basics doesnt even offer Google as one of its zero-rated websites. Google, for its part, is executing its own strategy, experimenting with delivering access through giant balloons and tiny satellites while littering the globe with sub-$30 smartphones running its Android software and pre-loaded with Google products and services.

An interesting analysis finds that the most vocal anti zero-rating internet elites in the US academics, venture capitalists and technology leaders claim common cause with the global poor, and dismiss zero-rating plans like Free Basics as malignant, walled gardens, a violation of free speech,or even a geniusly evil world domination scheme.

These individuals also largely residein the top median income zip codes in the US, communities in which the median income is on average 60 times that of the typical incomein a country like India. Walled gardens indeed.

But a deeper analysis finds somethingeven more interesting. Six of the twelve leading anti zero-rating activists have received funding from a Facebook competitorhellip;Google! either directly to them or through the organisations they represent.

This same cast of characters who argued that strong Net neutrality rules are necessary to keep the US internet free and open so more Americans can get online are the ones now insisting that Net neutralitys free and open doesnt really mean free or open for Indias disconnected. Instead, they argue that its better for the internet if Indias impoverished and disconnected simply do without than transgress their Silicon Valley paymasters global ambitions.

Those caterwauling the loudest that offering anything less than full access to the Internet is poor Internet for poor people are being highly disingenuous. After all, ideological purity is easy when it costs you nothing. Its akin to a debate among the well fed about whether the starving should be given soup that isnt organically sourced.

So, the next time you hear the Net neutrality priesthood decry zero-rating, it might be helpful to think to yourself, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, let them eatcode.

Jerri Ann Henry is public advocate for Protect Internet Freedom, a grassroots, nonprofit organisation of 1.6 million supporters dedicated to defending a truly free and open internet