A group of Indian technology and internet companies have pulled out of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, claiming it threatens the principle of “net neutrality”.
Net Neutrality is defined as the principle that all websites and apps should be equally accessible.
A group of prominent companies, including the media giant Times Group, have curtailed their involvement this week, amid a fierce national debate about net neutrality.
Critics have accused so-called zero-rating deals like Internet.org of violating net neutrality principles, because it involves special treatment for some online traffic.
“As for the Times of India itself, the group commits to withdraw from internet.org if its direct competitors—India Today, NDTV, IBNLive, NewsHunt, and BBC —also pull out,” Times group said in a statement. “The group also encourages its fellow language and English news publishers—Dainik Jagran, Aaj Tak, Amar Ujala, Maalai Malar, Reuters, and Cricinfo— to join the campaign for net neutrality and withdraw from zero rate schemes.”
However, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg defended Internet.org’s aims.
The service aims to extend internet services to the developing world by offering a selection of apps and websites free to consumers.
Participating publishers pay the data costs charged by telecoms firms.
But many companies fear this distorts the market and makes it harder for small companies to get their products seen by the public.
Currently, Indian visitors to Internet.org can access nearly 40 stripped-down services, including job, healthcare, news and education sites.
Facebook launched Internet.org in India in February after partnering with Indian telecom carrier Reliance Communications.
India has the world’s third-largest internet population and is the first Asian country to get the service.
Zuckerberg defended the initiative in an article for the Hindustan Times newspaper, saying: “Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected.”
Facebook is not the only company to have free web plans scuppered. Recently, India’s largest mobile operator, Airtel, announced a plan called Airtel Zero. Under the plan, users were not to be charged for data consumed while browsing on some applications.
E-commerce website Flipkart, which was part of the initiative, later pulled out following a backlash by net neutrality advocates.
“We will be committing ourselves to the larger cause of net neutrality in India,” Flipkart said in a statement. “We will be discussing over the next few days the details of actions we will take to support the cause.”