Facebook’s Free Basic service has been suspended in North Africa, after Egypt joined other countries in suspending the scheme.

The development comes after Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg robustly defended the programme in an editorial for the Times of India, and said that Free Basics “fully respects net neutrality”.

Service Suspension

Zuckerberg’s defence came after the Indian telecom regulator last week demanded that Facebook’s India mobile partner (Reliance Communications) put the Free Basics service on hold.

The regulator is set to hold a hearing on Internet neutrality in January.

And now Facebook has confirmed that in a statement to the Associated Press that Free Basics has also been suspended in Egypt.

Facebook said it hoped to “resolve this situation soon” so the program, which it had launched with Etisalat Egypt two months ago, could be restored.

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

Free Basics By Facebook is the new name for the old Internet.org’s app and mobile website. Facebook made the change in September in a bid to separate the basic service from the organisation’s efforts to get more of the world’s people online.

So far, Free Basics has launched in 37 countries. The way it works is that Facebook partners with a mobile network provider in a target country. Subscribers can then use that particular mobile network free of charge to access a limited number of online services. For example, Google searches, BBC News, Facebook, Accuweather, Wikipedia etc can be accessed from the scheme.

Troubled Scheme

But critics accused it of creating a ‘walled garden’ or ‘two tiered Internet’ for web users in developing countries. They also argue that it violates net neutrality rules.

In May this year, several dozen rights groups, including European Digital Rights (EDRi), signed an open letter to Facebook alleging that Internet.org violates network neutrality.

Mark Zuckerberg first launched the Internet.org scheme back in August 2013, saying that its aim was to connect the so far unconnected parts of the world to the Internet.

Earlier in 2015, Zuckerberg revealed that the scheme would also be coming to Europe.

Zuckerberg has previously denied the scheme compromises net neutrality, especially following protests against the scheme in countries such as India.

But the protests continued and Facebook soon realised it had to formally separate the controversial free curated web service (Free Basics) from its charitable initiative (Internet.org).

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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