New York: Social networking giant Facebook is rebranding its Internet.Org programme, which was in the midst of a controversy over alleged violation of Net neutrality, to 'Free Basics'.
Armed with more services and stronger security measures, the rebranding will help Facebook distinguish the free basic Internet offering from the large number of activities the US-based company is pursuing to help get new users online across the globe.
The announcement comes days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Facebook's campus in California on September 27.
"We're making this change to better distinguish the Internet.Org initiative from the programmes and services that Facebook provides, including Free Basics. Anyone currently using the app will be able to continue using the Android app though it will now be called Free Basics by Facebook in Google Play. And the mobile Web version, which will redirect from the previous URL, can be accessed at Freebasics.Com," Internet.Org Vice-President Chris Daniels told PTI.
He added that more than one billion people have access to Internet.Org's free basic services across Asia, Africa and Latin America today.
Launched last year, the programme has more than a dozen mobile operators on board across 17 countries offering basic Internet services without data charges to over a billion people. The programme aims to provide people with access to free basic services through Internet.Org to help them discover the value of the Internet.
"Internet.Org is working well. The programme has made an impact on people's lives by providing free health, education, and economic information. For example, SmartBusiness, a Website that helps people learn to launch and run a business, now sees 5x more daily searches within their service since the launch in South Africa in July. This means that more people are getting access to important economic information," he said.
India has over 8 lakh users of the Internet.Org initiative that has been in the thick of the Net neutrality debate. As part of the global initiative, Facebook had partnered with telecom major Reliance Communications to offer free access to over 30 Websites without data charges to users in India.
Facebook faced criticism for launching the platform as it is seen violating the principle of Net neutrality, which is against any priority being accorded to an entity in the Internet traffic flow because of payments to service providers such as telecom companies.
Following a walkout by many of its publisher partners in India, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had come out in defence of the programme, saying it did not block or throttle services and is not in conflict with Net neutrality.
Daniels said the company has been in discussions with stakeholders to present its view on the issue.
"We have been in discussions with various stakeholders. We maintain that Internet.Org is a medium to take Internet to the masses to help them understand the benefits of the worldwide Web," he said.
Daniels further said: "There is no exclusivity with Reliance in India. We are in discussions with more telecom operators in the country to join the platform. But the unfounded criticism has slowed the conversation. Hopefully, we will soon have more partners on board."
He reiterated that the company does not pay telecom operators for the data, but the service providers do see benefit as "people move on to paid services soon".
In May, Facebook had also announced an open programme for developers to create services that integrate with Internet.Org.
"Over the past few months, developers have adapted their services specifically for the Internet.Org platform requirements, and today, more than 80 free basic services are available in India," Facebook Director Product Partnerships Ime Archibong said.
"We saw a huge amount of enthusiasm from developers in India who have helped expand the range of resources that can be made available to people, giving them more choice and control over the services they can use through the app and Website."
Among the new services on the platform in India are English Dost, MeraDoctor, M-Kisan, My Rights and SkyMet.
With Free Basics, Internet.Org is also "making it safer" for people to connect to the Websites and services by encrypting information wherever possible.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also put up a post on Facebook sharing the announcement.
"We want to make it clear that the apps you can use through Internet.Org are free, basic services that can give you access to essential resources like BabyCenter," he wrote.
He further wrote: "Connectivity isn't an end in itself. It's what people do with it that matters -- like raising a healthy family."
He cited the example of Asif Mujhawar, a soybean farmer from rural Maharashtra.
Mujhawar has two daughters and says he makes better parenting decisions by accessing expert advice through the BabyCenter app for free through Internet.Org, Zuckerberg wrote.
"We hope the improvements we've made today help even more people get connected -- so that our whole global community can benefit together," he said.