Flipkart Backs Out Of Airtel Zero Program After Backlash From Net Neutrality Supporters

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After protests from net neutrality supporters, Flipkart, one of India’s largest e-commerce businesses, has announced that it will pull out of Airtel Zero, a controversial platform planned by telecom operator Bharti Airtel.

In a statement issued by Flipkart, the company said it has decided Airtel Zero and similar plans “[don’t] meet our standards of net neutrality and violates the principles that we stand for.”

Airtel Zero will give consumers free access to services by launch partners who pay Bharti Airtel. In an interview with TechCrunch’s Jon Russell earlier this month, Bharti Airtel’s director of consumer relations Srini Gopalan said that Airtel Zero’s goal “is to help developers reduce their cash burn, it is not a walled garden.”

Net neutrality advocates, however, said that Airtel Zero penalizes startups and other smaller developers by favoring large companies that have the resources to pay for preferential treatment by telecoms. Flipkart has raised $2.5 billion in funding so far.

While “zero-rating” plans  aren’t new, Airtel Zero has garnered a significant amount of backlash and become a focal point for net neutrality supporters in India.

The founder of Zomato, another startup based in India that has also raised a significant amount of funding (about $164 million), criticized Airtel Zero on Twitter. Deepinder Goyal said that he would not have been able to build Zomato, a restaurant-rating platform, if a direct competitor had been on a similar platform.

Flipkart’s decision to withdraw from Airtel Zero comes a day after founder Sachin Bansal told NextBigWhat that the company supports net neutrality.

“We do not support anything that could discriminate one company or service over the other by creating roadblocks that compromise the experience that they promise to offer,” said Bansal.

Throughout the interview, Bansal reiterated that Flipkart’s deal with Airtel Zero was still under discussion at that point.

In its statement today, Flipkart made it clear that discussions are over:

We at Flipkart have always strongly believed in the concept of net neutrality, for we exist because of the Internet. Over the past few days, there has been a great amount of debate, both internally and externally, on the topic of zero rating, and we have a deeper understanding of the implications. After reviewing implications of zero rating deeply, we reached the conclusion that it doesn’t meet our standards of net neutrality and violates the principles that we stand for
Based on this, we have decided on the following:
· We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero
· We will be committing ourselves to the larger cause of Net Neutrality in India. We will be internally discussing over the next few days, the details of actions we will take to support the cause
· We will be working towards ensuring that the spirit of net neutrality is upheld and applied equally to all companies in India irrespective of the size or the service being offered and there is absolutely no discrimination whatsoever

While “zero-rating” platforms go against the tenets of net neutrality, its advocates argue that providing subsidized access to apps and other online services is an important tool for increasing Internet penetration in developing markets.

TechCrunch has contacted Bharti Airtel for comment.