Facebook offers free but limited access to the Internet in India

Facebook-backed Internet.org has launched an app in India that will provide free data services for accessing selected websites

Facebook-backed Internet.org is extending its offer of free but limited Internet access to India via a mobile app.

The launch of the app in India follows similar introductions in Ghana, Zambia, Colombia, Kenya and Tanzania, despite criticism from activists that the program does not meet its stated objective of providing free and unfettered Internet access to all.

The common thread in all these launches is that the app is available only to subscribers of one operator in the country. In India, for example, Internet.org has tied with Reliance Communications, the country's fourth-largest mobile services provider.

Internet.org is a collaborative effort, launched in 2013 by Facebook and other tech companies including Ericsson and Samsung Electronics, that aims to provide Internet access to those who don't yet have it.

"Connectivity can't just be a privilege for some of the rich and powerful," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year at the first meeting of Internet.org. "It needs to be something that everyone shares, and an opportunity for everyone."

But the way the free service has been offered has come in for criticism from some social activists.

"This is a walled garden approach that undermines the infrastructure of free expression in India," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based organization focused on research and policy advocacy, who pointed out that the app does not offer truly free access to the Internet.

Prakash is also critical that the service will only be available to subscribers of Reliance Communications, defeating the stated aim of Internet.org of providing free Internet access to all.

The free access is limited to 38 websites, including Facebook and its Messenger service, Bing Search, Dictionary.com, Wikipedia, BBC News, Reuters Market Lite for crop and farming information, and local jobs and news sites.

The service will only cover a few Indian states in South India. Reliance customers in the six states can access the free services through the Android app, from the start screen of the Opera Mini mobile web browser, and using the Android app UC Browser for Internet.org. The services will be available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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