Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who is visiting India to promote the company's Free Basics drive (better known as internet.org) fended off some tough questions about the scheme in a townhall Q&A in New Delhi on Wednesday (28 October). Zuckerberg who has previously claimed to be a supporter of net neutrality, however, said those in support of it were already online while millions still did not have access to the internet to make their voices heard.
"We need to separate when a company is charging different rates for a service from when another is offering a service for free so that someone could benefit from it. And of course you can't provide the whole internet for free," Zuckerberg said when questioned about his company's new scheme violating net neutrality. Free Basics was heavily criticised for offering a bunch of websites for free on the platform available only to a single mobile carrier, Reliance, for customers in India.
According to Zuckerberg, it was imperative to get people online by offering them basic internet at the lowest possible prices which Free Basics aims to do. "It is impossible to fulfil our dream of connecting the entire world without connecting India where over a billion people still don't have access to the internet," he said.
The service has been expanded by Facebook to about 25 countries, mostly Asian and African. Free Basics offers a bundle of basic limited websites one can visit including an only text format of Facebook for what it calls affordable price. It is built in a way that strips down data cost to the minimum levels possible. However, for India which is a growing market, users are aspiring for more and are not happy with being forced to take a Reliance connection which, according to many users, has a rather dodgy network reception.
Zuckerberg faced a volley of interesting questions including the million dollar question on Candy Crush. The one on how to stop annoying Candy Crush requests in fact topped the list of questions handled my moderators; yet, Zuckerberg did not have a clear solution to the problem. "This is why such townhalls are so useful. This was the top voted questions on our thread. I told my developers can we have a solution to this problem by the time I do my Q and A? So we are doing it now," said Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg also spoke about some projects his company was working on. These included a project where artificial intelligence can describe photos to blind people and a missing services alert system like Amber Alerts in the US which helps track missing people through Facebook. The head of the world's most successful start-up also gave entrepreneurship advice to youngsters and start-up aspirants.
The townhall Q&A was held at IIT Delhi one of India's premier technology institutes. However, only 10% of the students from the institute got an opportunity to attend the event as they were selected through a lottery system by Facebook.