Facebook's Internet.org faces Indian exodus

​Facebook's Internet.org initiative is facing an exodus of partner organisations in India as internet companies in the region begin to withdraw from the project over net neutrality concerns.

A growing number of internet companies operating in India are distancing themselves from Facebook's Internet.org initiative over concerns about how it could impact net neutrality in the region.

Online travel booking platform Cleartrip, along with media outlets NDTV, Newshunt, and selected titles of the Times Group, have made moves to walk away from the initiative.

The Times of India said in an article published on Wednesday that the Times Group's titles, TimesJobs and Maharashtra Times, would pull out of Facebook's Internet.org. It also said that it would withdraw The Times of India itself from the program if its competitors did the same.

"We support net neutrality, because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies -- big and small -- to produce the best service and offer it to consumers," said a Times official.

The move comes just over two months since Facebook made its Internet.org app available in India, in partnership with local telco Reliance Communications, as part of the social network's initiative to make the internet accessible to more people by providing a set of free basic services.

The app's February launch in India saw it offer free access to an initial set of 38 websites for users in six states. The app first launched in Zambia in June last year. Since then, it has also been launched in Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, and Tanzania.

However, with the subject of net neutrality raging in the United States, questions about how the service impacts net neutrality in India have been raised since its introduction to the region -- given that it provides access to its 38 partner services for free, while non-partner online platforms remain accessible only through existing paid internet services.

Despite the Internet.org initiative drawing questions, Facebook founder Marck Zuckerberg said in a Q&A session on Wednesday that the Internet.org program's benefits outweigh any perceived drawbacks.

"I think net neutrality is important to make sure network operators don't discriminate and limit access to services people want to use, especially in countries where most people are online," said Zuckerberg. "For people who are not on the internet, though, having some connectivity and some ability to share is always much better than having no ability to connect and share at all.

"That's why programs like Internet.org are important and can coexist with net neutrality regulations," he said.

He also revealed during the Q&A that he wants to bring the Internet.org service to Europe.

The Times Group's move to extract its platforms from the Internet.org initiative follows the country's largest e-commerce player Flipkart also withdrawing from the Airtel Zero platform, which was introduced by the country's largest telco Bharti Airtel. The Airtel Zero service, launched last week, sees customers access certain mobile applications, with charges being borne by the app makers rather than those accessing the service.

However, like Internet.org, the service has since faced criticism over how it impacts net neutrality in the country by favouring selected sites with preferential internet access over others.

Bharti Airtel took a share price hit on Wednesday after Flipkart pulled out of the scheme, with the telco's stock falling by 2.47 percent, according to The Times of India.

Meanwhile, in Facebook's home country, net neutrality has effectively become the law of the land, with the Federal Communications Commission voting in February to regulate internet service providers as utilities.

The move means that ISPs must provide equal broadband access to you or any site -- such as Amazon or Netflix -- without slowing down or speeding up sites for additional fees.