Confused by Facebook’s propaganda on Free Basics literally flooding every media platform? Your newspaper has been carrying it; you have seen it on TV; outdoor hoardings shouting at you; the internet is abuzz with it. And now, even your Facebook newsfeed keeps informing you about every friend of yours who is signing on to save the internet and feel like a proud warrior in the noble cause of bringing digital equality to millions of Indians with a mere click!
Now that TRAI has extended the deadline for its consultation to January 7, 2016, we thought it’s a good opportunity to get word out to even more people and help them make an informed decision and take a stand on, what could be, one of the defining moments of India’s digital future.
Well, before you indulge yourself in generously donating that one click to Facebook for its Free Basics platform and feel like you have done this nation a great service, it is important to try understanding if under the guise of digital equality, Facebook is peddling digital slavery by choosing what few favoured sites can be accessed by the first time users of internet in India?
If Facebook really wants to connect all the under privileged people to the internet, should it not do it by offering the entire spectrum of internet rather than some select partners it will choose on its own? Digital equality means that internet should be accessible to all at the same costs and not that Facebook’s controlled version of internet is accessible to people who have not even experienced its full potential yet. Digital equality also means that innovation should not be stifled simply because one’s website can’t make the cut because of technical guidelines decided by Facebook – which it can change at any time.
More than charity, it comes out to be a self serving propaganda as Facebook tries to control which sites would be accessible to people who are going on the internet for the first time. Or rather who will reach out to the people going on the internet for the first time. Or is it simply a means to sign on more users to compete with rival Google which makes more revenue even with the same no of users? Given that Facebook has reached saturation in developed markets, isn’t Free Basics simply a disguised effort to increase footprint in the unsaturated markets i.e. the developing nations. Beneath the garb of CSR, one needs to closely look at the digital discrimination being implemented slyly though the veil of Free Basics.
Facebook claims that it wants to lift a billion people in India out of poverty by bringing them online. Mark Zuckerberg recently published an op-ed in TOI, expressing concern about how supporters of Net Neutrality, i.e those who want equal access to internet for all, would rather have a billion unconnected people.
Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people.
So Mark Zuckerberg defends Free Basics, without directly addressing concerns of Net Neutrality, and justifies it by implying that poor people rather have access to sub-par internet services than no access at all.
He further adds,
For those who care about India’s future, it’s worth answering some questions to determine what is best for the unconnected in India.
What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?
Facebook wants us to believe that it is better to offer a walled garden to those deprived rather than offering them no garden at all. Really? Is Free Basics the only and best choice left with us to connect a billion people to opportunities? Then how come we added 100 Mn users to the internet last year without it? Is it the only alternative to boost entrepreneurship? Then how come we have managed to be among the top five largest startup communities in the world in its absence? Is it the only way to bridge the digital divide?
Is it the only choice Ganesh the farmer, whom Mark speaks about, has in today’s interconnected world – a choice of 101 sites selected by Facebook? Is that all we, the so called digitally connected elite group, merrily clicking on our Facebook notifications without taking a pause to think, can do to help our not so privileged country men? So just because we are a third world country, we should be happy about Facebook’s act of charity and give up our right to digital equality – a first world prerogative?
Before you do that, take a minute to understand what Facebook is saying and what it actually means. After all if one thing that Facebook has rightly said, it is
To connect a billion people, India must choose facts over fiction.
So here’s a look at the bare facts about Free Basics:
(Source: Podcast of Atul Jha’s interview of Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama and Kiran Jonnalagadda of Hasgeek)
The Path So Far
To understand the issue better, it is important to take a look at the important developments that have happened in India on the net neutrality debate ever since the Internet.org campaign was rolled out by Facebook. The following timeline traces the major events which have influenced the way the net neutrality issue has shaped up in India.
As of now, TRAI has asked Reliance Communications, the sole telecom partner offering free basic internet services to its users in India, to put on hold the commercial launch of Facebook’s Free Basics till it is approved. TRAI is accepting comments on the issue till 30th December from the public on the same before it makes a decision on Free Basics.
Unrest In The Civil Society
Recently, the same arguments for net neutrality were further simplified by AIB’s latest video in the SaveTheInternet series, to drive the point that Free Basics actually is not as noble as it sounds.
This was AIB’s third video in SaveTheInterent Series, a campaign spearheaded by Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama, who has been leading the Net Neutrality campaign in India. Nikhil along with his friends Ajay Gupta, Amba Kak, Rohin Dharmakumar (former journalist with the Forbes India magazine), Kiran Jonnalagadda (Bangalore-based hacker and founder of HasGeek), and Headstart (one of India’s largest networks of early-stage startups) together created the initial buzz for the issue to invoke a public debate on the same.
The team kickstarted the SaveTheInternet campaign by launching the site, roping in AIB for mobilising support and asking people to write to TRAI on the issue.
No wonder Facebook, which has been trying to peddle digital equality, tried to kill this campaign slyly by disabling the link on Facebook.
Nikhil and his team’s relentless struggle to bring the discussion into the public realm was the starting point of the Net Neutrality debate in India with startups, politicians, political parties, filmstars, all joining in to voice their support.
While Rahul Gandhi (Congress) was the first politician to lend his support to Net Neutrality, others have followed suit too. Recently, Naveen Patnaik, the CM of Odisha, stated, “ If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.” The CPI( Marxist) party of India too stepped in, slamming Facebook for its misleading campaign on Free Basics.
Besides the AIB video, many other informative videos have been launched on the same in regional languages to mobilise public support for the issue which would affect the way the digital progress and the startup ecosystem shapes up in India in the coming years.
Meanwhile on Reddit and across multiple other forums, net neutrality supporters came out with their own hilarious versions of Facebook’s newspapers ads scouting for Free Basic.
The Mahesh Murthy – Facebook Saga
Mahesh Murthy, angel investor and co-founder of Seedfund, has aptly summed up in his Linkedin post on the subject.
If Facebook is allowed to get away with this then every other company will offer its own “Free Basics” with other sites and we will grow up as a fractured country, unable to speak with each other because we are all on different, unconnected micro-networks.
The internet has been the biggest revolution of our times. The breadth and width allowed a Zuckerberg to become the businessman he is. Tragic that he is pushing for a micro network outside the internet where a future Zuckerberg can never realise his potential. It’s imperialism and the East India Company all over again. Under the lie of “Digital equality”.”
FACEBOOK: Any developer can have their content on Free Basics. Nearly 800 developers have signed up their support for Free Basics [..]
MAHESH’S RESPONSE: Only two of India’s top 40 sites, as ranked by Alexa, are in the list of Free Basics sites released by Facebook – and one of those is Facebook itself. The other is Wikipedia. The rest are sites that range from a number 43 at best to a number 1 million plus ranked at the worst. [..]
To make it clearer let’s tell you what the people of India will NOT find on Free Basics: no Google. No YouTube. No Amazon. No Flipkart. No Yahoo. No LinkedIn. No Twitter. No Snapdeal. No HDFC. No ICICI. No PayTM. No eBay. No IRCTC. No NDTV. No Rediff. No Quora. No Quikr. No RedBus. No BSE. No NSE. And the list goes on. It’s clear: the “Basics” of the Indian internet are not on Free “Basics.” Just like Internet dot Org was neither Internet nor Dot Org, Free Basics is neither Free, nor is it the basics. [..]
FACEBOOK: It is not a walled garden. 40% of our users go on to access and pay for the full Internet within 30 days. In the same time period, 8 times more people are paying versus staying on just the free services. [..]
MAHESH’S RESPONSE: Now here’s the irony. Facebook, by industry estimates, has spent over Rs. 100 crores on this advertising, PR, lobbying, Narendra Modi hugging and diplomacy effort. [..]
If they’d simply put that money sponsoring, say the first 100MB a month at 2G speeds for new users of the full internet, that would have barely cost Rs. 200 a year, per person at current published pre-paid top-up rates of many mobile carriers. In effect, the same spend from Facebook could have given 5 million Indians full internet access for a year. Instead of these 50 lakh new Internet users from India, what it’s gotten them instead is 10,000 people locked in their walled garden and 110,000 people who don’t want to go online again, even to the free Facebook offering. And a net of 80,000 people who went online to pay for full internet access from their own pockets. [..]
FACEBOOK: In the past several days, 3.2 million people have petitioned the TRAI in support of Free Basics. [..]
MAHESH’S RESPONSE: Thank you for confirming that your Facebook vote-getting effort wasn’t representative, but aimed as you say at only that “small fraction” of your users who had already showed support for Internet.org. In other words, you’d stacked the deck. [..]
FACEBOOK’S ADVERTISEMENT CLAIM: There are no ads in the version of Facebook on Free Basics. Facebook produces no revenue. We are doing this to connect India and the benefits to do so are clear. [..]
MAHESH’S RESPONSE: Just a roundabout way of saying what they’ve said and we’ve said all along – Facebook doesn’t have ads yet, but reserves the right to bring in ads at any point in time. Nothing new here. [..]
Startups Step In
As the deadline of TRAI’s consultation paper approaches (which was extended today to Jan 7, 2016), many startup founders have been aggressively pushing people to take a stand for net neutrality and send a mail to TRAI. Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma has openly voiced his opinions against Free Basics in a series of tweets.
Microsoft India Chairman, Bhaskar Pramanik, also voiced his support saying that Free Basics does not comply with the principles of net neutrality, and it does not treat all the content equally. Says Bhaskar,
I don’t think what Facebook is doing is about net neutrality; it is about helping first-time users get on the Internet and they should call it that. But to muddy it and say that it is also net neutral doesn’t make sense.
Similarly, Truecaller’s CEO Alan Mamedi also came out strongly against Free Basics, asking Indians to support net neutrality.
Meanwhile, Freecharge’s founder Kunal Shah facilitated a debate between Facebook and the supporters of Net Neutrality in India.
Consequently, Chris Daniels, Vice President, Product – Internet.org, Facebook agreed to conduct a Reddit India AMA (Ask me Anything) session on December 26th, 2015 (Saturday) between 6 PM and 7 PM, wherein he again defended Free Basics saying that it is a program that is designed to be always on so that people can come online when they’re ready to or need to.
Yesterday, a group of nine startup founders including Deepinder Goyal of Zomato, Faisal Farooqui of Mouthshut, Vijay Shekhar Sharma of PayTM, Vishal Gondal of GOQii, Sachin Bhatia of Truly Madly, Alok Agarwal of Teesort.com, Bharat Gulia of Metis Learning, Manish Vij of SVG Media, and Vineet Dwivedi of FlipClass.com stepped up to take a stand against Free Basics. They have written to TRAI Chairman RS Sharma, requesting the regulatory body to “to issue clear regulations preventing telecom providers or content providers from acting as gate-keepers”. The letter is in response to TRAI’s consultation paper on differential pricing of data services issued earlier this month.
The practice of differential pricing of data services results in skewing the dynamics of the internet with telecom service providers and a few players like Facebook with its Free Basics platform acting as gate-keepers. Differential pricing of data services including practices like zero rating of selected content and applications leads to a tiered internet instead of a single open internet. This affects the ability of new players to compete in the market with the established corporations.” They clearly mentioned, “ At this stage, there is no reason to create a digital divide by offering a walled garden of limited services in the name of providing access to the poor.”
It would be something to see how Facebook defends itself from the mounting protest against Free Basics campaign and how TRAI decides on the issue. As per latest media reports, Facebook has also lobbied with Nasscom, and the startup founders such as Snapdeal’s Kunal Bahl and Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar, who have been vociferous in their opinion against it, to enlist their support.
In another major move, Paytm appears to have sponsored SaveTheInternet.in ads across multiple channels on Tata Sky and Dish TV.
Nasscom meanwhile has advocated for nine recommendations to TRAI, recommending that” The universal principles of Net neutrality, access for all and leveraging Internet for development growth should be upheld.”It also states that “A level playing field is provided to Internet platforms and services, especially entrepreneurial start-ups” .
The Last Mile
Someone rightly said that there is no such thing as a free lunch; it won’t be wrong to say there is no such thing as Free Basics – it would cost India its digital equality in the long run. A platform which offers a sub-par service to the poor, raises serious concerns about data privacy, and can stifle the fledgling startup ecosystem by taking away the very openness of the internet which was responsible for its growth, can hardly be our best alternative. Which is why it is important for us to support Net Neutrality as rightly summed up in this tweet:
How Can You Help?
- Click here to ask the TRAI to investigate Facebook’s submissions for authenticity.
- Click here to send an email to TRAI in support of Net Neutrality
- Click here to mail your MP to support Net Neutrality.
(Inc42 would like to thank Atul Jha and Apar Gupta for their valuable inputs on the issue.)