NEW DELHI — Pushing to bring hundreds of millions of Indians into the online world, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday called for expanding his pet project to provide free mobile Internet for developing countries into India.
Zuckerberg, 30, the billionaire founder of the Facebook empire, arrives in India at a time when Facebook is losing its luster among American teens, but India’s vast market has yet to be fully tapped. A democratic country with a growing economy like India’s, with 1.2 billion people, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 35, is a market the company cannot afford to ignore.
India has the third-largest population of Internet users in the world at 205 million now, ranking after the United States and China. Yet the majority of its rural poor don’t have Internet access, and less than a tenth of its people, about 100 million, are on Facebook.
“Connectivity can’t be restricted to just the rich and powerful,” Zuckerberg said at a conference on connectivity in New Delhi. Rather, he said, it’s a basic “human right.”
Zuckerberg hopes to use his Internet.org connectivity initiative, which he started with a handful of other tech companies in 2013, to expand Indians’ online footprint and promote Facebook. He said the program will set aside $1 million to help develop local language apps for farmers, women and students in developing countries, including India.
In the past year, Zuckerberg said, Internet.org helped nearly 3 million people around the world gain access to the Internet and Facebook by working with cellphone operators in Indonesia, the Philippines, Paraguay, Tanzania and Zambia. In those countries, cellphone users signed up for data plans that included free but limited access to health and job information, Wikipedia, Google — and, of course, Facebook.
About 4.4 billion people in the world have no access to the Internet, and “the offline population is . . . disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female,” said a report by McKinsey and Facebook. Countries such as Egypt, India and Indonesia face the greatest challenges with respect to incentives and infrastructure, the report said.
“It took 10 years for India to touch 100 million Internet users, but it grew to 200 million in just the last two years,” said Subho Roy, president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India. There are 930 million cellphone users in India today. “Cellphones have acted as the primary driver pushing Internet usage in the last two years,” Roy said.
Researchers note that new users’ first experience on the Internet is often on Facebook.
The free basic services that Facebook has promoted in different countries help cellphone users “to experience the Internet, use some things, to understand why it would be valuable for them and get exposure to other services that they might over time want to pay for,” Zuckerberg said.
But many critics say that commerce is driving Zuckerberg’s push for connectivity rather than philanthropy. They say many new users may not pay for wider Web access and that can create entrenched monopolies for companies like Facebook and Google.
“You are allowing people to roam the walled garden of Internet for free. But if they don’t pay to use unlimited Web access, you are also creating monopolies and blocking competition in the Internet space,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore. “But in India, we are so hungry for Internet access that we cannot afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. Until India builds physical Internet infrastructure, this will help us in the short term to get connected.”
Zuckerberg said cellphone operators are free to choose which services they want to include in the package: “There is no rule that says that Facebook or any other company has to be included in this. All we are saying is that this is a model that works to get more people on the Internet.”
And Facebook’s India push is not all about chasing numbers, Zuckerberg said.
“The sheer numbers are obviously a very important part of it,” he said. “If you can do it in a country like India, you are improving hundreds of millions, or maybe a billion, people’s lives, whereas doing it in almost any other country, you wouldn’t be able to have that impact.”
India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, a user of social media, has set an ambitious target of building a broadband highway connecting 250,000 village councils across the country in the next three years. Zuckerberg said he will meet Modi on Friday to “see how Facebook can help” in India’s new connectivity drive.