Facebook’s Free Basics app, which aims to provide ‘free Internet access’ to users who can’t afford data packs, has run into trouble in India since the last two weeks. After regulator TRAI issued a paper questioning the fairness of zero-rating platforms, it also asked Reliance Communications (the official telecom partner for Free Basics) to put the service on hold.
- Facebook on its part has gone for an aggressive campaign, both online and offline, to promote Free Basics and ensure that its platform is not banned permanently.
- In its campaign, Facebook is also using the generic phrase “free, basic Internet” interchangeably with “Free Basics”. This is in blatant violation of Indian rules on advertising, which forbid generic words being used for brands and products.
What is Free Basics?
Internet.org was rechristened Free Basics in September. According to Facebook, it is an open platform that gives Indian developers the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access. However, this free access is limited to partner websites and applications.
- It was launched two years ago globally in partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm.
What’s the problem with this initiative?
Contrary to what it claims, it doesn’t offer equal and unbiased access to all services. Facebook is partnering with ISPs to provide preferential and selective access to a set of app developers and services. This is the main criticism of those opposed to Free Basics; they argue that the internet should be free and equal for all users. This is also the cornerstone of net neutrality.
What’s net neutrality?
Net neutrality means access to free and unbiased internet for all. To put it in simple terms, anyone from anywhere around the world should be able to access or provide services and content on the internet without any discrimination.
How Facebook defends this initiative?
Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, views this initiative as a philanthropic gesture, as part of a purported, larger aim to bring access to the Internet to those people who find the costs of using generally available mobile data prohibitive.
Arguments against this initiative:
- Free Basics is not free, basic Internet as its name appears to imply. It has a version of Facebook, and only a few other websites and services that are willing to partner Facebook’s proprietary platform.
- The danger of privileging a private platform such as Free Basics over a public Internet is that it introduces a new kind of digital divide among the people. A large fraction of those who will join such platforms may come to believe that Facebook is indeed the Internet.
- The initiative also risks breaking the network into many smaller ones and skewing the playing field in favour of apps and services that enjoy privileged pricing.
- It also threatens net neutrality, the principle that all Internet sites should be equally accessible.
- The initiative also restricts access to free, full Internet for users and hampers innovation.
- This initiative forgets that while English is spoken by only about 12% of the world’s population, 53% of the Internet’s content is English. If Indians need to access education or health services, they need to access it in their languages, and not in English. And hence this is not suitable for India.
- And the Internet is not a substitute for schools and colleges but only a complement, that too if material exists in the languages that the students understand. Similarly, health demands clinics, hospitals and doctors, not a few websites on a private Facebook platform.
Then, what are the alternatives available?
- Government subsidies: The government could subsidise ‘open’ Internet. And let people pay for it though taxes. Taxes that could be used in areas where private enterprise cannot function profitably, at scale.
- There are other various ways of providing free Internet, or cost-effective Internet, to the low-end subscribers. People could be provided some free data with their data connection, or get some free time slots when the traffic on the network is low.
- 2G data prices can and should be brought down drastically, as the telcos have already made their investments and recovered costs from the subscribers.
India is expected to have 500 million Internet users by the end of 2017, and what kind of an Internet they get access to is important for our country. TRAI must now take a call on whether such business strategies are anti-competitive. But in dealing with the question, the regulator must not allow itself to be persuaded that such schemes are necessary for bringing the Internet to the masses. It should be noted here that in spite of having 125 million Indian subscribers, Facebook refuses to be sued in India, claiming to be an American company and therefore outside the purview of Indian law. Nor does it pay any tax in India.