The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently ordered Reliance Communications, the sole mobile operator for Facebook’s Free Basics initiative in India, to suspend it temporarily and released a consultation paper calling for comments from the public at large on whether wireless carriers can charge differently for data usage across websites, applications and platforms. The issue has since become a literal slug-fest between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Net Neutrality activists. It is even being keenly tracked by countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia for their own concerns regarding the conflict.
No doubt, Facebook is rattled. The world’s largest social networking site has pulled out all stops and is spending millions of dollars on full-page newspaper ads, hoardings and an SMS campaign to reach out to people. Facebook representatives also went on Twitter and Reddit to directly engage with Net Neutrality activists leading up to the deadline.
Meanwhile, the other camp - Indian Internet activists - have hardly been quiet and have been waging a vociferous campaign to ‘Save the Internet’ and prevent Free Basics from becoming a reality, which, they claim, divides the open Internet into free and paid tiers.
Zuckerberg’s argument for free Internet access is based in part on a Deloitte research which revealed that for every 10 people who come online, one is lifted out of poverty and one job is created. Although he had initially called it internet.org, Zuckerberg recently added 60 new services created by third-party developers and renamed the project Free Basics by Facebook. The revamped website comes with a menu where its users in Asia, Africa and Latin America can choose which services to activate and access. In addition, the new mobile website -- now FreeBasics.com instead of Internet.org -- supports https just like the Android app does.
Project Zuckerberg and what’s wrong
Facebook is targeting the vast rural population in India/Africa, most of whom have had little or limited access to computers and the Internet. Moreover, Facebook is attempting to provide access to people with absolutely no connectivity to the Internet at present. This seems like an incredibly useful generous feat that will connect billions of people with billions of others across the world. But, with a caveat. Facebook’s ultimate aim is to ensure a captive audience for itself. To the uninitiated, Facebook and Internet would be synonymous. And this is exactly what Facebook wants. When using Free Basics, the website is read by Facebook and then shown on the Free Basics domain itself. The original request never even gets to the website you’re trying to reach. A user never has to leave Facebook.
A curated web would give access to those websites that apply for Free Basics and get access to it. The whole system is regulated and closely monitored by Facebook. Those sites that do not apply or get access to Free Basics would not feature on the network. It would give billions of people with very little prior contact with the Internet, the assumption that only those websites that are on Free Basics are trustworthy and giving them the correct information when in fact, the opposite may be true. If anyone ever wanted to control information for billions of people, Free Basics would be the vehicle. That’s the inherent failure of Free Basics.
Facebook recently published a survey that showed four out of five Indians support Free Basics. The fine print on the source of the survey stated: Survey of 3,094 Indians by Hansa Research commissioned by Facebook. So, it looks like a survey done on 0.0002503% of the Indian population was enough for Facebook to claim that four out of five Indians supported Free Basics.
The not-so-obviously free aspects
By propagating free Internet to billions, Zuckerberg is hardly being philanthropic. User base numbers are critical to the social networking site’s business model. It’s because of its 1.55 billion monthly active users that the company is able to continue to charge advertisers for ad placement. Facebook's ability to continue to grow its user base is one of the reasons the company's shares have run up 40% year on year, while smaller social-media sites such as Twitter have failed to impress as its user base has not shown any significant growth. It’s no rocket science therefore that Zuckerberg's initiative has focused on the second-most populated country in the world.
Saving the Internet
According to Zuckerberg and those who view Free Basics as a truly philanthropic gesture, some Internet is better than no Internet for the billions unconnected in India. And as Zuckerberg freely admits, more people signing on to Free Basics would no doubt bolster his business interests but, it would benefit everybody else as well.
On the other side, Net Neutrality proponents cling to noble intentions, and also need to admit that they are investors or in some way connected to start-ups and therefore, have equally deep commercial interests as Facebook does. They can’t afford to let telecom service providers or for that matter Facebook, assume control over access to content on the Internet.
It’s true that in its earlier avatar when it was internet.org, it operated on a model which let the corporation pick a handful of websites it would feature. When activists protested, Zuckerberg saw the wisdom in that and so in his latest version, he ensured that the rules of entry would be made clear and broad enough for any developer to be a part of the system. In forcing Facebook to expand internet.org and make it more transparent, the activists had won a major victory.
But the activists are back today, insisting that there are other ways of giving free Internet access to the poor. According to SaveTheInternet.in, “There are several ways other than zero-rating and differential pricing to bring Internet access to millions of Indians who hitherto could not access Internet due to high data costs. Here, it is important to note that some telecom service providers and Facebook have misled people to believe that there is no other way but to resort to differential pricing and zero rating to expand Internet access.”
No wonder then that Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and the man behind the Aadhaar project, recently became the most visible face of opposition to Facebook’s Free Basics by calling it a “walled garden” that is against the spirit of openness on the Internet.
The grey matter of it all
If implemented, Free Basics is going to shape the Internet for the next billion people in India. They will get access to 0.0000000000001% of the Internet instead of the entire world wide web.
Over the last few weeks, Facebook has spent over Rs 1,000,000,000 (close to $15,400,000) on advertisements for Free Basics in India. With lines such as “If you want Digital Equality for India, support Free Basics” or “What the activists won’t tell you about Free Basics” or even “To get Free Internet for Digital Equality, give a missed call”, they have engineered a climate where anyone who doesn’t support this will start appearing as anti-poor or a not-so-patriotic Indian.
It’s little wonder then that several Free Basics critics out there have rightly pounced on Facebook for its ad splurge and have pointed out instead that the Department of Telecom’s Universal Service Obligation Fund, which today has a corpus of Rs 40,000 crore with contributions from all telecom operators over time, would be a better option for Facebook to contribute its millions and achieve its own stated goal of bringing all of India online without distorting markets.
On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge that modern business, society and governments have always practised ‘free basics’. For instance, subsidized basic education offered by the government to certain sections of the population; two-wheelers not being allowed on certain toll roads or travel operators offering ‘early bird discounts’ and others having to pay a higher rate. ‘Free basics’ and ‘differential pricing’ abound in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s fitting after all that Zuckerberg asks, “Who could possibly be against this?”