The backlash against Facebook’s free mobile data scheme, Internet.org, is gaining momentum across the globe among digital rights groups.
A total of 67 groups form countries such Uganda, Ecuador and Indonesia have signed an open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying that the initiative is unfair and threatens net neutrality.
The app gives users access to a limited number of online services without incurring any data charges, but the groups have voiced concerns about freedom of expression and privacy.
Facebook continued to back the service in a statement, which said that as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services: “We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services."
The scheme was created by working with mobile carriers in parts of Africa, Asia and South America to bring internet access to parts of the world where it was restricted.
Selected services including Wikipedia, BBC News, Facebook and some local news providers would become available via the scheme's app without any data charge applying.
However, digital rights groups who signed the letter say the project threatens freedom of expression, privacy and the principle of net neutrality - the idea that all data is treated equally online - because only selected services can take advantage of Facebook's provision.
“It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world's poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure web sites and services,” said the letter.
“Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs.”
To access the service, people must use special Android apps, Internet.org's web site, Facebook's own Android app or the Opera Mini browser.
The web pages provided must be basic to minimise data use, with high resolution photos, videos and voice chat facilities not permitted.
Since 2014, the project has launched in Zambia, India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malawi.