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Facebook founder defends Internet.org from critics

At a town hall meeting in India, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his ambitious plan to expand Internet access for those communities that are still unable to get online.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) gives a "namaste", a gesture of greeting, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg applauds on stage after a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California September 27, 2015.

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During a conversation at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi on Wednesday, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his commitment to providing free Internet services to the world’s poorest communities.

“Our mission is to give every person in the world the power to share what's important to them and connect every person in the world,” he said.

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Mr. Zuckerberg’s visit to India came about a month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park, California.

During that Modi visit in September, Zuckerberg announced his intention to bring Internet.org to India. He is hoping that the project will achieve more widespread popularity now, under the new, rebranded name of Free Basics.

India is one of Facebook’s largest user bases, with more than 130 million active users.

At the India town hall meeting, Zuckerberg acknowledged this, saying that because India has one of Facebook’s largest user populations, it is important to listen to and understand India’s concerns.

But many Indians are wary that Internet.org is merely a cover for Zuckerberg to get more Indians on Facebook, rather than a means to enable them to access the Internet in its entirety.

“What they say and what they do are two different things.” Nikhil Pahwa, founder of the technology news website Medianama, told Quartz. “What Facebook is doing is to suck internet into Facebook.”

Internet.org has also been criticized for possibly violating net-neutrality agreements. In India, Internet.org has an agreement with Reliance Communications, a telecommunications company, to provide simple services like connectivity and messaging through its platform. Internet.org’s critics are concerned that the agreement Internet.org has with Reliance may block smaller communications companies and developers from gaining access to or selling services through the application.

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“It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services,” a group of developers from all over the world, including India and Pakistan, wrote in an open letter.

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg wrote a lengthy Facebook post detailing his position on net neutrality.

"We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it. Internet.org doesn’t block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes – and it never will. We’re open for all mobile operators and we’re not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected," Zuckerberg wrote.


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