Facebook-backed nonprofit brings free internet to India

The app, which is aimed at low-income and rural users, is available in six Indian states

Millions of Indian residents now have free access to basic internet services on their mobile phones after the Facebook-backed nonprofit Internet.org launched its service in the country.

The app, which is aimed at low-income and rural users, is available in six Indian states under an agreement with local telecoms company Reliance Communications. The move is part of Internet.org’s drive to spread web access to the billions of people worldwide not currently connected, aiming to remove barriers to connection and make access more affordable.

“To continue connecting the world, we have to connect India,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a statement. “More than a billion people in India don’t have access to the internet. That means they can’t enjoy the same opportunities many of us take for granted, and the entire world is robbed of their ideas and creativity.”

India is the first country in the region to gain access to Internet.org’s application. People in Tamil Nadu, Mahararashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana now have access to more than 30 pared-down services that include news, healthcare information, local jobs, sports and local government updates.

According to Internet.org, most of the services will be available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi, and open to all Reliance subscribers  with handsets capable of handling internet traffic. Among the available sites are BBC News, Facts for Life - a health and hygiene site, and homegrown Indian travel booker, Cleartrip.

The move drew criticism from some observers, who saw it as a ploy to push advertising, but Zuckerberg was quick to respond to comments posted on Facebook. “We're doing Internet.org to serve our mission of connecting the world rather than trying to make a profit anytime soon,” he wrote. “If we were only focused on making money, there are many other things we'd do before Internet.org. We could make much more money from advertising to rich people than we'd make from advertising to people who can't afford internet access. Over the long term though, I do hope that the internet will help grow these economies.”

In the last year Internet.org has introduced its services to Africa - most recently Ghana - and Latin America, where Colombia is the latest country to be given access.

“More than 6 million people are already connected to the internet who previously weren’t, and we’ve started hearing incredible stories about how the internet is changing lives and communities,” said Zuckerberg. “We still have a long way to go to connect India. But I'm optimistic that by getting free basic services into people's hands, more change can follow pretty rapidly.”

In 2010 Zuckerberg signed up to the Giving Pledge, a public commitment to give away 50 per cent or more of his wealth during his lifetime or upon his death. In 2013, he topped The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list for the single biggest gift, after pledging $992.2m to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, in the form of Facebook shares.

Zuckerberg led the founding of the Internet.org project in 2013 in an effort to spread web access to some of the world’s poorer communities. A number of his gifts have been focused on education and late last year he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $25m to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help fight Ebola.  

Photo credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com