While it is important for users to have Internet access, and the jury is still out on how restricted or not this should be, it is as important for all to know how to use and benefit from the internet, like we have and do writes Paresh Chaudhry CEO of Madison PR.
If we just invented the printing press - would we subsidise its access and use in lieu of restricting it to only print in a few languages or scripts of our choice?
The internet is the renaissance of our time. The ability to learn, interact and co-create with anyone around the World, is surely and speedily taking us to a world we may not have imagined a decade ago. If we were to go back 50 years, we may not have been able to comprehend the thought.
We, who were amongst the first to try, experiment and benefit from the internet, can surely swear by its fruits - unrestricted access to information, knowledge, real-time data sharing, collaboration, and more.
How did we get here? There is no one answer really, things just worked out, and are working still. Maybe because it was a level playing field, encouraging new ideas and innovations - many emerged, some survived, others thrived - their fate and future decided by the millions and billions of us, equally; with our wants, desires, habits, likes, tastes and of course clicks.
Having said the above, surely everyone around the world needs and deserves access to the Internet, akin to basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, healthcare, electricity and education.
However the question on the table with regards to the Facebook Free Basics debate is: What is more important - for them to have ‘some’ internet? Or for ‘all’ internet to always be 100% unrestricted the way we know it to be?
Which leads to a larger question - who should be the one championing the cause of Free Internet to the World? Should it be Governments, Internet Companies, Telecom Providers, NGOs, others, all or none?
We do live in a time where, there is usually more than meets the eye, and perception is greater than reality - so it can’t be ignored that even if not intended or stated, each stakeholder may look to bend the internet to suit their interpretation, of what the internet should be, or how it’s cause may be championed.
At this point it’s good to mention China, with double the number of Internet users of India, is also home to the largest internet firewall the world has ever seen. Clearly the Government took a lead there - only allowing its people to see the internet they want them to see, which is their version of what the internet should be.
It is also worth mentioning that the US last year, with a total population of as many internet users in India at this point, approved real Net Neutrality protections with a ruling that prevents Internet access providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon from becoming the gatekeepers to everything online. A debate very close to the one at home now.
Not to forget that what is termed as real Net Neutrality today is an idea derived from how telephone lines are known best to work. i.e. you can dial any number to most operators in the World and connect to it. It does and should not matter who you call – the operator should neither block access or deliberately delay connection, unless when asked by law.
So clearly the World and us people are better with the Phone, Internet, and we should strive for each of us to have equal access. However as there are both real and perceived conflicts for all stakeholders to champion the cause of Net Neutrality fairly, maybe it will be better for each stakeholder to adopt the least threatening role and approach to hasten the process.
As example, the US FCC invited views from all online citizens, the people who use it every day and in every way, before its Net Neutrality ruling last year. Closer to home we can see TRAI doing similar. Both Governments could have of course chosen never to ask ‘us’ people about these things, much like China, but thankfully they did.
I would like to end by bringing to the table what I feel may be the most ignored point of this debate, and maybe a clear opening for some to take the lead, thereby avoiding the conflict at present.
We, the first users of the Internet, are also amongst the most fortunate in the World, with good education, early affordability to new electronics, innovations and more. It is because of these gifts we were able to comprehend and benefit from the Internet.
I can’t say most of our countrymen, or many of those in the developing world are as fortunate.
What would ask for all stakeholders to include in this debate – in addition to internet access, is the ability and training for those who may not know English, or use computers or smartphones – to not be left behind.
So while it’s important for users to have Internet access, and the jury is still out on how restricted or not this should be – it’s as important for all to know how to use and benefit from the internet, like we have and do.
IDEA does suggest that by simply sharing one’s internet, our driver or helper will know how to use it – such may not be the case.
I am not saying talent does not exist in all quarters of society, the Internet if anything has demonstrated and showcased it surely does – but if we assume that by simply providing everyone free or limited internet, they will automatically know how to best use it – that may be a stretch.
Interestingly Mark Zuckerberg in his recent op-ed on Free Basics and Net Neutrality spoke of Ganesh in rural Maharashtra, who found weather information online to prepare for the monsoon season. He also looked up commodity prices to get better deals. Now Ganesh is investing in new crops and livestock.
Surely Ganesh has a talent beyond farming, and it’s ironic for him to be positioned as a champion for Free Basics, when his more pressing need and value may be to educate fellow farmers on how he did what he did, irrespective of who provided him the internet to do so - and this may need to be in languages other than English, or via front page ads in national English Newspapers.