Zuckerberg Plea for Free Web in India Wins Support in Review

  • Most comments are `template responses,' regulator says
  • Telecom operators support differential data-pricing plans

A majority of Indians who submitted comments to the nation’s telecommunications regulator said they support Facebook Inc.’s Free Basics plan that would allow free Web access.

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said that 1.35 million responses in support of the plan -- or 56 percent of all comments -- came from Facebook’s @supportfreebasics.in, according to a report on the agency’s review of different pricing for data services. It received another 544,000 responses from @facebookmail.com, with most backing Facebook’s plan, the regulator said, without providing a percentage.

Comments either supporting or opposing differential pricing were “basically template responses" and "identical in nature," the regulator said Saturday on its website, without explaining how the views would be used in the review. The agency’s chief, R.S. Sharma, told The Hindu newspaper in an interview published Jan. 1 that such responses were "not helpful at all" and didn’t represent meaningful input. The regulator has appealed to respondents and Facebook to solicit more detailed opinions.

Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg made a personal appeal in one of India’s leading newspapers last month for the country to allow a free Internet service. Facebook’s proposed Free Basics plan allows customers to access the social network and other services such as education, health care and employment listings from their phones without a data plan. Industry groups say the program threatens the principles of net neutrality and could change pricing in India for access to different websites.

The company is spending billions of dollars on Internet.org, including projects to deliver the Web to under-served areas using drones, satellites and lasers. Zuckerberg, the billionaire co-founder, has said the goal is to bring the Internet to the developing world and alleviate poverty, and not to make money for Facebook or its partners.

Facebook’s Campaign

To drum up support, Facebook started a “Save Free Basics In India” campaign, asking Indian users to support “digital equality” by filling out a form that was sent as an e-mail to regulators. The Menlo Park, California-based company took out full-page advertisements, including one featuring a smiling Indian farmer and his family whom the ads say used new techniques to double his crop yield.

Telecom operators including Bharti Airtel Ltd., Vodafone Group Plc’s local unit and Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., controlled by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, also support differential data pricing plans. The Internet & Mobile Association of India and the National Association of Software and Services Companies opposed differential pricing, saying it violated “principles of net neutrality,” according to a statement on the regulator’s website.

The regulator said it received 484,000 comments, out of a total of 2.4 million, from forums such as Save the Internet. The regulator set Thursday as the deadline for comments.

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