MUMBAI/NEW DELHI • India has become a battleground over the right to unrestricted Internet access, with local tech start-ups joining the front line against Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his plan to roll out free Internet access to the country's masses.
The Indian government has ordered Facebook's Free Basics plan to be put on hold while it decides what to do.
The programme, launched in around three dozen developing countries, offers pared-down Web services on mobile phones, along with access to Facebook's own social network and messaging services, without any charges.
But critics say the programme, launched 10 months ago in India in collaboration with operator Reliance Communications, violates principles of Net neutrality - the concept that all websites on the Internet are treated equally. It would put small content providers and start-ups that do not participate in it at a disadvantage, they say.
"India is a test case for a company like Facebook, and what happens here will affect the roll-out of this service in other smaller countries where, perhaps, there is not so much awareness at present," said New York-based lawyer Mishi Choudhary, who works on technology and Internet advocacy issues.
Also at stake is Facebook's ambition to expand in its largest market outside the United States. Only 252 million of India's 1.3 billion people have Internet access, making it a growth market for firms, including Google and Facebook.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) on Thursday said it had received record submissions for a public consultation that precedes the rule-making process.
But more than three-quarters of the 1.8 million comments submitted by users via Facebook will be disregarded as they did not follow the proper format, Trai chairman Ram Sevak Sharma said at a news conference.
In the past week, Facebook has urged users in India to send a response to Trai through its social networking platform as well as via mobile phones. With phones, people can dial a number that automatically generates a response on the users' behalf.
However, the social media giant faces stiff resistance.
In a letter seen by Reuters, the heads of nine start-ups, including Alibaba-backed Paytm and dining app Zomato, have written to Trai urging it to ensure Internet access was allowed without differential pricing.
The executives, in the letter dated Tuesday, said differential pricing for Internet access would lead to a "few players like Facebook, with its Free Basics platform, acting as gatekeepers". "There is no reason to create a digital divide by offering a walled garden of limited services in the name of providing access to the poor," they wrote.
Mr Zuckerberg has got personally involved. "We know that for every 10 people connected to the Internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty," he wrote in The Times of India newspaper earlier this week.
"We know that for India to make progress, more than one billion people need to be connected to the Internet. What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women's rights?"
A Facebook spokesman said the aim of the Free Basics initiative was to give people a taste of what the Internet can offer. And Facebook has rolled out a series of full-page newspaper advertisements and billboard banners in an aggressive campaign to counter the protests.
Trai has asked Facebook and Reliance Communications to suspend Free Basics until a final policy decision is made this month.