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MIT Technology Review

Spurned in India, Facebook Is Now Shopping Its Free Internet Program in the U.S.

The company says it’s a way to help underserved communities get online, but opponents call it an unfair advantage for a huge tech company that’s greedy for more users.

October 7, 2016

Is Facebook a socially minded company that wants to help close America’s embarrassing digital divide? Or is it a cynical corporation looking to foist its branded version of the Internet on people in the hopes that they become revenue-generating users?

The truth may be a bit of both. According to the Washington Post, Facebook is trying to get officials in the White House on board with its Free Basics program, in which the company partners with mobile providers to give users free access to a limited number of apps and websites, like Wikipedia and Facebook.

The company argues that the program, which is already available in 49 countries, helps people in poor and rural communities get online without incurring data charges. By providing connectivity in the U.S., the argument goes, Facebook would be giving people access to economic opportunity.

Facebook's Free Basics program did not go over well in India.

But Free Basics was banned in India in February for violating net neutrality rules. The program created a tiered system for content that favored Facebook’s services over those of other companies, the country’s Internet regulator found.

Facebook is clearly looking to avoid a similar fate in the U.S. That may be tricky, though—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint make certain content free, and Verizon and AT&T charge content providers for the privilege of being exempt from users’ data caps. That’s triggered an investigation into the practice, known as zero rating, by the Federal Communications Commission.

In the end, what may help Free Basics succeed most are the changes Facebook has made to the program since the debacle in India. Instead of selecting its own services and a handful of others to be graced by exemption from data caps, the company has said any third-party developer that wants to get in on the program is now welcome.

That may count more as pragmatism than altruism, but Facebook at least seems willing to admit that the race to increase connectivity can have more than one winner.

(Read more: Washington Post, Ars Technica, “The Next President Will Inherit America’s Embarrassing Digital Divide,” “India’s Blow Against Facebook Sets Up a Grand Experiment in Net Neutrality,” “Facebook’s Controversial Free-App Plan Gets Competition”)