"Disagreeing" with critics of the zero-rating concept, which allows Facebook-led initiative internet.Org to deliver free basic Internet services in several countries including India, its founder Mark Zuckerberg today said universal connectivity and net neutrality "can and must" coexist.
Zuckerberg's comments come amid a raging debate that such plans lead to violation of the principle of Net neutrality in India, with partners in his dream initiative internet.Org leaving the portal.
Defending the initiative, Zuckerberg said: "We're proud of this progress. But some people have criticised the concept of zero-rating that allows internet.Org to deliver free basic Internet services, saying that offering some services for free goes against the spirit of net neutrality. I strongly disagree with this.
"We fully support net neutrality. We want to keep the Internet open. Net neutrality ensures network operators don't discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It's an essential part of the open Internet, and we are fully committed to it."
Net neutrality means equal treatment to all Internet traffic with no priority given to an entity or company based on payment to service providers like telecom companies, which is seen as discriminatory.
Also read: Internet and civil society: Why #NetNeutrality is a democracy issue
In a Facebook post Zuckerberg said: "But net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles -? universal connectivity and net neutrality ?- can and must coexist."
Zuckerberg, whose popularity has reached cult status after he created the world's largest free social networking platform, said that to give more people access to Internet, it is useful to offer some service for free.
"If someone can't afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all. Internet.Org doesn't block or throttle any other services or create fast lanes -- and it never will.
"We're open for all mobile operators and we're not stopping anyone from joining. We want as many Internet providers to join so as many people as possible can be connected," he added.
Arguments about net neutrality should not be used to prevent "most disadvantaged people in society" from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.
Also read: Net Neutrality: Why the Internet and its applications are best left untouched
He warned: "Eliminating programmes that bring more people online won't increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two thirds of the world who are not connected."
On the internet.Org initiative, Zuckerberg said there is a historic opportunity to connect billions of people across the globe for the first time and all should work together to make that happen now.
"Internet is one of the most powerful tools for economic and social progress. It gives people access to jobs, knowledge and opportunities. It gives voice to the voiceless in our society and it connects people with vital resources for health and education.
"I believe everyone in the world deserves access to these opportunities," he added.
In many countries there are big social and economic obstacles to connectivity, Zuckerberg said, adding that Internet is not affordable to everyone and in many places awareness of its value remains low.
Besides, women and the poor are most likely to be excluded and further disempowered by lack of connectivity, he added.
"This is why we created Internet.Org, our effort to connect the whole world. By partnering with mobile operators and governments in different countries, Internet.Org offers free access in local languages to basic Internet services in areas like jobs, health, education and messaging," he noted.
The initiative lowers the cost of accessing the Internet and raises awareness of the value of Net connectivity and it helps include everyone in the world's opportunities, he said.
"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.
"In India, we've already rolled out free basic services on the Reliance network to millions of people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Telangana," he added.
Zuckerberg informed that internet.Org has been launched in Indonesia on the Indosat network today.
In India, telecom regulator Trai has invited public comments on a discussion paper for policy framework on Net neutrality and Internet-based messaging and calling service providers such as WhatsApp, Skype, Viber and Google Talk.
Petitions to the telecom sector regulator has neared the 8-lakh level to 'keep Internet free'.
An intense debate, including on social media platforms, began on the issue of 'net neutrality' has started after some telecom firms, including Bharti Airtel and RCom, announced services that are being billed as going against the concept of maintaining equal Internet access for all.
These platforms claim to allow users to access a variety of mobile and Internet applications for free, but the critics allege that these services restrict the 'free' access to a select group of websites and apps and therefore sabotage the entire concept of keeping the Internet free.
Buckling under a growing public outrage, ecommerce giant Flipkart decided to 'walk away' from Airtel Zero.
Net neutrality advocates claim such initiatives go against the principle and that users should be able to access all websites at the same speed and cost.