Facebook has announced partnerships with 30 new developers in India for its free basic services under the Internet.org platform. This includes applications for learning English named English dost , information for farmers, M-Kisan; and healthcare – Mera Doctor.

 This takes the total number of apps available on the Facebook’s free basic services platform to 80. In May, it had launched the service offering free access to 32 apps and websites on Reliance Communications' network. RCom users can access these apps and websites without paying for data usage.

In talks with telcos Facebook is in talks with other telecom companies to take the initiative to a larger audience.

Facebook had announced this as part of the Internet.org initiative aimed at connecting the next billion users. This has come under severe criticism by supporters of Net neutrality. According to them, offering free access to select apps and websites violates principles of Net neutrality because Facebook was acting as gatekeeper to give preferential treatment to a few websites and apps.

 Explaining Facebook’s position, Chris Daniels, Vice-President, Internet.org, said the platform was open to all developers as long as they met certain criteria.  “The important thing is that offering free basic services is not the end destination. Globally, 50 per cent of the users on this platform have moved onto accessing other websites by paying for data services, within the first month.  In India, this is eight times the users,” said Daniels.

The Department of Telecom and the telecom regulator are looking at whether the Facebook platform violated Net neutrality. To limit the impact of any possible negative outcome, Facebook has re-branded the free part of the Internet.org platform as Free Basic Services.  

“We’re making this change to better distinguish the Internet.org initiative from the programmes and services we’re providing. Anyone currently using the app will be able to continue using the Android app, though it will now be called Free Basics by Facebook in Google Play,” Facebook said in a blogpost. 

Globally, there are 19 countries where Facebook has launched free basic services but India is perhaps the most critical market where it faces a daunting task of convincing the regulators that its platform does not violate Net neutrality.  “India is important for Facebook and we are confident that we will be able to address all concerns around Internet.org,” said Daniels. 

(The writer is in Menlo Park at the invitation of Facebook)