Digital divide

Facebook opens up Internet.org to developers, responding to net neutrality advocates

Chris Daniels, Facebook's VP for Internet.org, says Facebook isn't picking the web winners through the initiative.

Facebook announced on Monday that its Internet.org app, which offers some websites for free, without data charges, is being opened up to developers. “Our goal with Internet.org is to work with as many developers and entrepreneurs as possible to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities,"  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. "To do this, we’re going to offer services through Internet.org in a way that’s more transparent and inclusive.”

The lack of transparency and inclusiveness was among the criticisms that net neutrality activists have made about Internet.org, which is available in India through Reliance Communications on Android phones. In an interview at Facebook’s New Delhi office, Chris Daniels, Facebook’s vice president of product for Internet.org, explained why he believes Monday's announcement is significant.

What are the changes you are announcing today to Internet.org?
This is an important step we are taking, opening up Internet.org. This does two things. One, it invites developers to join, which we heard they want to. Two, it gives consumers more choice, which we heard they want as well.

How does it work?
If you are a developer and you have a service, you can join Internet.org if you comply with the principles we will soon publish. The process of joining the platform consists of three principles. The first is, it should encourage people to explore the broader internet. You may have links to other sites from your site, so the people are encouraged to explore beyond the basic services. Second is that you must develop a simpler version of your service to be a free basic service.

The second principle is around efficiency. This model has to work for the operators and for the business model. We need things that are data efficient on the network. Services like video or high-resolution photos aren't going to be a god fit in a free, basic service.

The third principle is a set of technical guidelines. These are technical requirements in order to zero-rate the traffic. These include guidelines such as https protocol can't be included, neither can javascript.

Currently there are around 30-odd sites on Internet.org in India. Opening it up and inviting developers could mean there could be a lot more sites on the platform. Are the operators going to be happy about this?
It has to work for operators in the long-term. What we believe though is that giving consumers more choice will make them experience some of these basic services that are valuable to them and then they can go on to explore the broader internet. When they do that, they will pay for the data, and that does work for the operator.

Is this move to open up Internet.org to developers in response to the net neutrality debate in India, as part of which Internet.org has been widely criticised as violating net neutrality principles?
We always wanted to provide more basic services as part of Internet.org. It was part of our long-term roadmap. The debate here certainly accelerated our plans. The debate also gave us an opportunity to go to all the constituents of the debate and hear how they see Internet.org, the benefits they see from it and the concerns people have about it.

The most interesting feedback we saw was from consumers, who were positive about programmes that bring people online. When we listened to the people spearheading the net neutrality debate, the primary things we heard were around consumer choice and making sure that any developer can join. Today we have addressed those.

Some content partners have exited Internet.org in India to support net neutrality. These include travel website Cleartrip and news conglomerates NDTV and The Times of India. Are you concerned about the future of Internet.org in India?
If you look globally, Internet.org is in nine countries right now. There hasn't been anywhere else that people have exited. I am very optimistic about Internet.org globally and in India, because we are providing a fantastic service for people to come online. It's working for consumers and mobile operators and now it will also work for the developer community.

There will still be people who will say that Internet.org is a violation of the net neutrality principle, as it creates a free and a paid lane, and one such discrimination in data is allowed, operators might use it to argue for fast lanes and slow lanes, and so on.
I don’t believe that Internet.org is a violation of net neutrality. I believe that that programmes that bring more people online must co-exist with net neutrality. We agree with the principles of net neutrality – that there shouldn’t be fast lanes, throttling, etcetera.

Programmes that are specifically designed to bring more people online are good for the entire ecosystem and the entire world.

It is important to differentiate between different kinds of zero-rating services. With Internet.org, the key feature is that there is no money paid by Facebook or other content providers to the operator. The only way Internet.org works for operators is that more people come online. That’s the only business model that works. It aligns incentives. The only thing Facebook does pay for is marketing Internet.org so that people who are not online come to know about it.

What would you say to those that Internet.org isn’t about bringing more people online but only increasing the monthly active users of Facebook.
That notion is absolutely false. Internet.org has roughly 30 content partners in India. Facebook and Facebook Messenger are only two of them, listed just like the other sites. We really people that people should come online and experience the entire wealth of the internet. That would be good for the entire ecosystem, and thus also Facebook. But that’s not our primary goal here. Our primary goal is that those who are not online should also experience the benefits of the internet.

Isn’t it strange that Internet.org wants to offer free basic services but has no email?
If an email provider wants to comply with the platform guidelines that we are announcing, Internet.org would be glad to have it.

What has been the consumer reception like for Internet.org in India? How many people are using it and how many people has it helped discover the internet?

We have seen it bring more people to the internet. We have seen data that shows it is bringing more people online. Unfortunately, I can't share any specific statistics. Those are between the operator and us.

What do the global numbers look like?
Our efforts have brought 8 million people to the internet, whom we believe would not be on the internet otherwise. Internet.org today is available today in countries or regions that cover roughly 800 million people. We are saying the adoption of internet.org continues to grow. We are in nine countries and will add more to the list. We are in this for the long haul.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.