If Mark Zuckerberg hopes to deliver on his vision of bringing the Internet to the four billion people who lack it, the Facebook chief will first need to make his plan more appealing to salesmen like Shoaib Khan.
Mr. Khan’s perfume and cellphone shop in one of this city’s many slums recently displayed a large blue banner advertising Mr. Zuckerberg’s project, called Internet.org, in the back. Another sign for Facebook’sfree package of Internet services — offered in Indiathrough the cellphone carrier Reliance Communications — was posted prominently in front.
But when a reporter asked Mr. Khan about his experience with Internet.org, he had no idea what it was. After the program was explained to him, he quickly dismissed it.
“The Reliance connection is very patchy,” Mr. Khan said, shaking his head. “I would really have to sell the customer on it.”
Facebook’s rocky experience since it brought Internet.org to India in Februaryshows that good intentions and technological savvy are not enough to achieve a noble goal like universal Internet access.
The skepticism of phone sellers like Mr. Khan and the weaknesses of Facebook’s Indian partner are just two of the problems that have bedeviled Mr. Zuckerberg’s project so far.
Internet.org’s free services — which include news articles, health and job information and a text-only version of Facebook — are deliberately stripped down to minimize data use and the cost to the phone company. Facebook says the primary goal is to show people what the Internet is all about. But many Indians want more and complain that, contrary to its altruistic claims, the project is simply a way to get them onto Facebook and to sign up for paid plans from Reliance.
Internet activists have also attacked Facebook, accusing it of cherry-picking partners to include in its walled garden rather than simply offering a small amount of free access to the whole Internet. Their concerns have struck a chord with the Indian government, which is considering new rules that would govern such free services.
Mr. Zuckerberg declined several requests to discuss Internet.org. But he remains passionate about his crusade. “Internet access needs to be treated as an important enabler of human rights and human potential,” he told the United Nations last month.
The Internet.org suite, rebranded last month as Free Basics, is now in 25 countries, from Indonesia to Panama. Facebook is investing heavily in other parts of the project, including experiments to deliver cheap Wi-Fi to remote villages and to beam Internet service from high-flying drones.
Mr. Zuckerberg is also determined to win over the Indian public. Last month, hehosted a live-streamed chat with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, from Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters. And this week, Mr. Zuckerberg will be in New Delhi, where he will take questions from some of Facebook’s 130 million Indian users.
The magnitude of the task ahead was apparent during a reporter’s visit in August to Dharavi, home to as many as a million of Mumbai’s poor.
Several billboards advertised Freenet, Reliance’s version of Internet.org. But in the neighborhood’s narrow alleys, where rivulets of raw sewage competed with sandaled feet, there was little evidence that anyone had taken notice.