Facebook’s free Internet service stumbles in Egypt

Facebook just can’t give the Internet away.

A week after Indian regulators halted the company’s Free Basics program, which provides free access to select online services by partnering with local telecoms, the Associated Press reported that the program has also been halted in Egypt.

Free Basics is part of the Internet.org initiative Facebook created to provide free Internet access to people around the world through programs like this, satellites, drones, and other delivery mechanisms that haven’t yet been publicly revealed.

“We’re disappointed that Free Basics will no longer be available in Egypt,” Facebook told the Associated Press. “More than 1 million people who were previously unconnected had been using the Internet because of these efforts.”

It’s not clear why the Egyptian government halted the program. Indian regulators did so due to concerns about how Free Basics might affect net neutrality — concerns which have hounded the program since its inception.

That criticism prompted Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to defend Internet.org’s efforts on his personal Facebook page and the Times of India’s website. (The crux of his argument is that Free Basics supports net neutrality.)

Egypt’s halt might have different motivations. The country has shut down an art gallery and raided an independent publishing house, according to the New York Times, in an “expanding crackdown on dissent that now includes cultural spaces popular with activists and artists” motivated by its president’s fear of revolt.

It would make sense for the government to target free Internet services while it clamps down on physical gathering places. Stifling free access to the open Web has become something of an established tactic throughout much of the world.

Regardless of the motivation, it’s clear that Egypt has joined the Indian government, activists from Latin America, and net neutrality advocates in standing between Internet.org and those it wishes to reach with Free Basics.

Who’d have thunk giving away free Internet access would be this hard?

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