Over the past week, a debate on net neutrality has whipped up extreme emotions in India and hit Facebook’s Internet.org hard. Businesses including travel site Cleartrip, news portal NewsHunt, and television firm NDTV pulled out of Internet.org after widespread criticism that it flouted net neutrality principles by selectively offering content and services, including its own, for free. Internet.org is a globe-wide platform aimed at developing newer internet access models in emerging markets.

For global technology firms such as Google and Facebook, who have ardently propounded net neutrality elsewhere in the world, much is at stake in India, where only a fraction of the population — about 300 million out of 1.2 billion Indians — has internet access. Major businesses, from Google with its Android One platform and Facebook’s Internet.org, have been trying to crack the India riddle of how to get the next billion users, most of them too poor or unwilling to pay, on to the internet and how to make money off these users.

In February 2015, Facebook brought to India its Internet.org platform. The country with 100 million Facebook users is already its second-largest market after the US. The social network’s intent is to grow this base by targeting low-income and rural users through free access to a stripped-down “internet” with education, healthcare, financial, and travel apps and its own network. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Internet.org would serve to supplement Indian governmental efforts to bridge the digital divide.

But a melee triggered off last month because of an unobtrusive move by India’s telecom regulator TRAI, which sought public opinion on allowing India’s telecom operators (who are also India’s major internet providers) to charge disparate fees for different uses of the internet.

That set off a countrywide Save the Internet campaign, which quickly gathered momentum as campaigners argued that charging more for some sites and nothing for others (who pay the internet provider) would unlevel the field and make users’ access more of the free sites and less of the charged sites. Within a week, nearly a million Indians had emailed their dissent to TRAI.

Meanwhile, India’s largest telecom operator and its largest internet provider, Bharti Airtel had already announced Airtel Zero, whereby internet users can have zero-rated access to those apps and websites which businesses pay for. Many critics found this a breach of net neutrality — i.e., the principle that all data be charged equally, irrespective of the type of data or its source. Airtel Zero quickly raised the hackles of online hordes who trolled potential customers like Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer, prompting it to hastily withdraw.

Even Zuckerberg’s commentary this week in Indian newspapers that net neutrality and universal connectivity “can and must co-exist” would not cut ice with activists. “Internet.org is an attempt to monopolize the internet by cloaking greed as philanthropy,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Delhi-based digital news portal Medianama, and a strident net neutrality campaigner. Further, businesses offering zero-rated access were only consolidating their own positions by building walled internet gardens, Pahwa said.

Activists are crying hoarse that such alliances between telecom operators and global firms to provide selective, subsidized access could particularly impede India’s fledgling startups and put them at a disadvantage against cash-rich rivals. “Startups may not have the money to pay operators to fight the de facto incumbent who can buy zero access,” said Vijay Anand, who runs an early stage accelerator for tech startups and is a member of the Bangalore-based iSPIRT, the tech products think tank.

In countries like the US, net neutrality has been a hard-won battle against internet service providers. In India, the question is: Will the telecom regulator heed to pleas from thousands of impassioned users and stand up to pressure from the telecom operators’ cozy lobby group that includes Facebook and Google?

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