Just days after telecom regulators in India temporarily banned Facebook’s Free Basics program, Egypt on Wednesday became the second country to clamp down on the social media giant’s controversial free internet service. The move comes amid growing debate over whether the service, which critics say would create a “walled garden” prioritizing some websites over others, violates the principles of net neutrality.
Facebook's partner in Egypt, telecom carrier Etisalat, began providing the Free Basics service two months ago. It is not immediately clear why the service, which Facebook claims was providing internet access to over three million people in the country, was suspended.
Etisalat is expected to release a statement later Thursday, according to media reports.
“We're disappointed that Free Basics will no longer be available in Egypt,” Facebook said, in a statement to the Associated Press (AP), adding that it hoped to “resolve this situation soon.”
“More than 1 million people who were previously unconnected had been using the Internet because of these efforts,” the U.S. social media site reportedly said.
The suspension of the service, which an Egyptian telecom official told Reuters was not related to security concerns, comes just days ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, played a crucial role in organizing demonstrations and mobilizing people for the movement in 2011.
The Free Basics program, part of Facebook’s ambitious yet disputed Internet.org plan, ostensibly aims to bring internet service to billions of people in developing nations. However, in India, for instance, the service has remained mired in controversy, with many alleging that free access to a limited number of internet services hurts India’s democracy and violates net neutrality — which calls for internet service providers to treat all content the same, regardless of the source.
Recently, just days after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked Indian mobile network Reliance Communications to put the service on hold, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched a vehement attack on critics and opponents of the program, accusing them of spreading false claims.
“Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim – falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden,” Zuckerberg wrote, in an op-ed for the Times of India. “Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite.”