A project by Facebook-backed Internet.org to offer people access to select online services without data charges has run into trouble in India, after the program was criticized by net neutrality activists.
Internet.org, a project launched in 2013 by Facebook and other tech companies to provide Internet access to the underprivileged, teamed with operator Reliance Communications in February to offer through a mobile app free access to Reliance subscribers to 38 websites and services, including that of Facebook.
The Internet.org program and other such deals have, however, been criticized on social media for violating the principles of net neutrality by creating "walled gardens" that provide free access only to a few preferred content providers and services. The Internet.org program does not meet its stated objective of providing free and unfettered Internet access to all, according to the activists.
A number of companies that had partnered with Internet.org to offer content or services had by Wednesday either quit the alliance or were readying to leave.
Travel site Cleartrip, for example, said it was withdrawing from Internet.org, as the recent debate in India over net neutrality had led it "to rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast."
The company said it wasn't making any money out of being on Internet.org, nor was it paying or being paid to be part of the program. "Since there was absolutely zero money changing hands, we genuinely believed we were contributing to a social cause," it said in a blog post.
The Times Group, a large media conglomerate, said it was withdrawing some of its Internet sites and services from Internet.org. But in the case of its main newspaper, The Times of India, it would withdraw if its direct competitors also pull out. NDTV, one of the competitors named, announced late Wednesday it is withdrawing from Internet.org.
Earlier in the week, Flipkart, one of India's large online retailers, said it was walking out of talks with another Indian operator, Bharti Airtel, which launched this month a marketing platform, Airtel Zero, that allows customers to access mobile apps without data charges. The charges and other fees are to be paid by the app providers, raising concerns that the deal could handicap small companies and startups.
Flipkart's CEO Sachin Bansal had earlier tweeted that the so-called zero-rating deals helped reduce data costs for users. But he retreated after strong online protests against the company. The activists then began scrutinizing other deals that offered free data access to websites and apps, including the Internet.org app.
Internet.org did not comment on the move by Cleartrip and other partners, but referred to a Q&A by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In that online interview on Tuesday, Zuckerberg said that net neutrality is important to make sure that network operators don't discriminate and limit access to services, particularly in countries where most people are online. But for people who are not on the Internet, having some connectivity and ability to share is much better than none, he said.
"That's why programs like Internet.org are important and can co-exist with net neutrality regulations," he added.
Net neutrality has become a big issue in India after India's Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked in March for comments on the regulatory framework for Internet applications and services that ride on mobile operators' networks, including on whether providers of apps and services should pay for the use of the telecom network over and above what users pay for data.