EFESan Francisco

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday defended his plans to bring free Internet access to people in developing countries after several Indian companies pulled out of the initiative.

Internet.org, the Facebook-led project that aims to provide free access to basic Internet services in areas such as jobs, health, education and messaging, ran into a stumbling block this week after several Indian companies said Zuckerberg's plan ran counter to net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers should treat all Web traffic equally.

Among the Indian companies that withdrew their support for Internet.org this week were the travel portal Cleartrip.com and the media conglomerate The Times Group, owner of the Times of India daily, which said that under the initiative telecom operators would end up deciding which applications and services users can access.

India's "Save the Internet" coalition said in an article published in the Hindustan Times daily that Zuckerberg's initiative is aimed at confusing "hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same."

But Zuckerberg defended the project in a blog post, saying Internet.org, through partnerships with governments and mobile operators, is striving to ensure that everyone in the world can access the opportunities the Web offers.

"We've made some great progress, and already more than 800 million people in 9 countries can now access free basic services through Internet.org," Zuckerberg said, adding that millions of people in India are among the beneficiaries.

He said he disagreed with the idea that free Internet runs counter to the principle of net neutrality.

"We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the Internet open," Zuckerberg said, arguing that that principle is not incompatible with connecting more people to the Web.

"If someone can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all," he wrote.

"Arguments about net neutrality shouldn't be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity," Zuckerberg said.

He said a "historic opportunity" exists to connect billions of more people to the Internet for the first time and that everyone should work together to make that happen.

Internet.org, furthermore, is open to all mobile operators," Zuckerberg wrote, adding that "we're not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected."