Facebook founder and CEO Marc Zuckerberg has been forced to defend his Internet.org initiative after several Indian companies were reported to have quit the project earlier this week.
Internet.org allows consumers in a number of emerging markets to use mobile data services free of charge in a practice known as "zero rating", but it has met with skepticism from some mobile operators and outright hostility from the most ardent supporters of net neutrality.
According to the BBC, a travel portal called Cleartrip.com and the Times Group media business are among the Indian companies to have withdrawn from Internet.org, claiming it violates net neutrality -- a vague principle that no web service should receive preferential treatment.
Net neutrality supporters have argued that startups and smaller players will be unable to survive if the Internet becomes a two-tier affair. The fear is that web giants like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Facebook will be able to strike favorable deals with operators and cut their rivals out of the picture.
In a blog post on Facebook's site, Zuckerberg has insisted that Internet.org does not go against the spirit of net neutrality.
"Internet.org doesn't block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes -- and it never will," he said. "Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity."
The controversy is the latest to embroil Internet.org, which was accused of endangering mobile operators in emerging markets at this year's Mobile World Congress.
Speaking during a keynote session that also featured Zuckerberg, Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas expressed particular concern about the impact that zero rating of Internet messaging services could have on operator revenues. (See Facebook Faces Operator Doubts on Tie-Ups.)
"The messaging side is an important revenue driver in the old telecom world," he said. "This is a point of tension between operators and Facebook -- we don't want to see that revenue stream disappear too quickly and we could stimulate that through Internet.org."
But other operators believe zero rating could persuade customers to pay for mobile data services by giving them a free taste of the services that are available.
Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), India's biggest operator, is thought to have attracted about 150 companies to its Airtel Zero platform, which works by charging web players for Internet access, rather than mobile customers. (See Airtel Zero Sparks Net Neutrality Debate in India.)
Defending Airtel Zero against critics, the Indian operator has claimed that smaller web players would have to spend considerably more on marketing their offerings through large media companies.
The Internet.org app was first launched in July 2014 in Zambia, where it is being offered in partnership with Bharti Airtel, and has since been rolled out in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and most recently India, where Reliance Communications Ltd. -- the country's fourth-biggest operator -- is the mobile network provider. (See Facebook Launches Free Internet in Colombia.)
Partners of Internet.org include Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), MediaTek Inc. (Taiwan: 2454), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Opera Software ASA , Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC).
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading