In India, Facebook and chums boil the internet down to 38 websites

That's all you'll need – cat pics, stupid videos and medical tips


Some people in India can now visit a gang of Western websites without being charged for the mobile data traffic – a handy way to boost user numbers globally for the moneybags corporations involved.

Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and proper tech companies, is behind the special offer to get more people hooked on social networks, web news and other stuff. All you need is a phone that can run a browser like Opera Mini and a mobile data signal.

"We still have a long way to go to connect India," said Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, a wise choice of words given that it's the Indian telcos doing the actual connecting.

"But I'm optimistic that by getting free basic services into people's hands, more change can follow pretty rapidly. One day, we will connect everyone, and the power of the internet will serve every community across India and the world. That day is coming."

The Indian service puts 38 sites on the free-to-view list, including Wikipedia, BBC News, a Reuters feed on farm prices, and assorted healthcare, education, job sites, and – of course – Facebook. Google is off the list (Microsoft was a founding Internet.org member) and Bing is free.

Facebook has partnered with local telco Reliance Communications on the deal to cover six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Mahararashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana) and services will be available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi.

Internet.org was set up by Zuck and Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Microsoft, Opera Software, and Qualcomm in 2013 with the goal of getting internet access onto every mobile on the planet as quickly and cheaply as possible.

There are five billion mobile phone users in the world and only half of them are online, Zuck told Mobile World Congress last year, and trials in Africa and South America showed internet use jumped 50 per cent after free access is available.

He warned that the project was going to be expensive initially, but that the firm has deep pockets and his board "gets it." Internet access should be a human right, he opined.

Zuckerberg's quest to open up the internet in the developing world has lofty aims, but there's a solid business reasons too. Facebook has 100 million users in India and it would like to get to the other 83 per cent of possible customers in the country sooner rather than later so he can show them some ads.

WhatsApp is going to be key to this, he's said, and makes the $19bn purchase price worth every cent. It's the same reason that Google's also trying to get the world online – it's good business sense for both companies.

The approach has its critics – including maybe the biggest robber-baron turned philanthropist of all time, Bill Gates. The bespectacled crusader said internet access isn't really a problem compared to hunger and deadly disease killing millions.

"As a priority? It's a joke," Gates told CNBC in an interview shortly after the launch of Internet.org. "I certainly love the IT thing. But when we want to improve lives, you've got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition.

"Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I'm thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that's great. I don't."

Nevertheless, internet access is a proven driver of economic growth and social progress, and the 362 million people covered by the first move into India are sure to benefit too. ®


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