Meet The Man Who Demoralized Facebook’s Plan To Provide Free Internet In India

As entrepreneurs go, Nikhil Pahwa is no Mark Zuckerberg. His startup, MediaNama, is tiny. Based in New Delhi, it is a news site that covers the digital and telecom industries. It employs little more than a handful of journalists and its focus is entirely local.

But Pahwa can claim one distinction that Zuckerberg can’t — he’s given a talk at the exclusive TED conference. It happened just last week, at the annual TED gathering in Vancouver. The topic: how Pahwa led the campaign that derailed Facebook’s FB +0.26% plan to provide free, but limited, Internet access in India through a program called Free Basics.

The defeat was a huge setback for Facebook FB +0.26%, and personally for Zuckerberg, who has put a substantial amount of effort and personal capital behind, the Facebook-led organization whose goal is to bring online the two-thirds of the world’s population that remains offline.

So why would anyone object to free Internet for the poor, for those who can’t afford data plans? The answer: Facebook’s Free Basics didn’t offer free Internet; it offered access to a limited set of sites — including Facebook – and on Facebook’s terms. Facebook would determine which sites qualified for Free Basics. Facebook and its telco allies have argued that users who get a taste of the Internet through Free Basics will quickly realize its value and sign up for unrestricted, paid access. But to Pahwa and his cohort, Facebook was putting itself in a position to pick winners and losers, and in the process, break the Internet.

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“One of the things we need to never forget is that it’s one Internet,” Pahwa, who is a TED “fellow” told the audience, which responded with a standing ovation. “What you access here, what you access in the United States, what you access in Mexico, Indonesia, anywhere in the world is the same. We need to ensure that the Internet doesn’t get fragmented and that it’s all of the Internet for all of the people all of the time.”


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