Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend Internet.org after a number of prominent Indian firms withdrew from the initiative over net neutrality concerns.

He argued in a blog against those who say offering some internet services for free – so-called zero-rating – is counter to the principle of net neutrality.

Zuckerberg portrayed himself as net neutrality’s biggest fan: “We are fully committed to it”. And he said the concept is not in conflict with getting more people online. “These two principles — universal connectivity and net neutrality — can and must coexist.”

Yet internet.org is now on the backfoot in India, after Times Group, NDTV, Newshunt and Cleartrip all announced they are to withdraw from the intiative, which is a tie-up in the country between Facebook and local operator Reliance Communications.

It is unclear if the droputs are more fearful of violating net neutrality rules, or being on the wrong end of negative consumer reaction.

Either way, Zuckerberg defended the initiative’s non-discriminatory credentials. “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.”

The catalyst for the furore in India was the launch by the country’s largest operator, Bharti Airtel, of a sponsored data platform. Leading e-commerce provider Flipkart was initially linked to Airtel Zero but dropped out, claiming its net neutrality principles had been broken.

Zuckerberg said the debate should not supersede the bigger picture: “Arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.”

“Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide,” he added. Instead it will deprive the rest of us of a contribution from the two-thirds of the world’s population which is not connected, he said.