Free Basics: There are no free lunches in this world!

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Not long after the discussion about net neutrality took the nation by storm, Facebook’s Free Basics invited a similar fate. Service providers have clearly underestimated the awareness and understanding of citizens about these issues. Internet has come out as a right of citizens in all of this discussion. For this we probably need to thank Mark Zuckerberg – for making citizens aware and active about the issue.

What is Free Basics all about?
It is the rechristening of Facebook’s ‘internet.org’, because let us face it, it is NOT the internet, it is merely a speck of the internet which will be free for users in the currently disconnected areas of the developing world. What Free Basics claims to do is to provide access to internet to thousands of people, thereby opening up a world of knowledge, commerce and education for them which will help them earn livelihood, get education, innovate and basically live a fuller life. This will be done by inviting individuals, application designers and organisations who are willing to sign up with Facebook to agree to the terms and conditions put down by Facebook. There comes your problem number one – Facebook gets to decide which applications will reach the users. First rule of net neutrality – no gatekeepers! Internet is open and free to all. No fast lanes for anyone. Facebook in a recent post, attempted to clarify on the various allegations made against Free Basics. While they clearly say they are against fast lanes, free access to some applications and not others is still unequal access. While the blog post attempts to redeem face by saying that according to their survey, around 40% of Free Basics users choose to avail the whole internet in a month, the question still remains – what about the remaining 60%? How have you then helped connect the poor as you proudly intend to do?

In a report published in the Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Internet, says that consumers should “just say no” to initiatives such as Facebook’s Free Basics because programs like that are not the full internet. Period.

Problem number two, and probably the biggest one is that Facebook is making this project (consciously calling it a project and not an initiative) look like a philanthropic one. Its blog reads ‘Save Free Basics’, ahead of suggestions asked by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on the acceptability of differential rating systems like Free Basics and others in the Indian market. Mark Zuckerberg has done a great job of showcasing this as a humanistic initiative – well it most probably isn’t. If the aim was bring connectivity to the under-developed world, there were a dozen other ways to do it. It need not be branded under the Facebook banner. But it is, and that gives away your humanistic, philanthropic, social work angle right away. This is business, only packaged (attempted) in a different way.

Leave alone philanthropy, according to Evgeny Morozov, one of the most insightful commentators on technology, has written extensively on how Silicon Valley seeks to subvert the state, promising to give the people connectivity, transport and other facilities, if we only hand over our data to them. Instead of people demanding that the state provide access to various services — from drinking water to transport and communications — people are being led to believe that a few capitalists from Silicon Valley will provide all these services. We will have Internet connectivity instead of education, and Uber will provide private taxis, instead of public transport. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, let the people have cake instead of bread. This is the Internet monopolies’ agenda of hidden and mass scale privatisation of public services.

By accepting the Silicon Valley model of private services, we pay the Internet monopolies with our data, which can then be monetised.

Personal data is the currency of the Internet economy. Data as commodity is the oil of the 21st century. Facebook and Google’s revenue model is based on monetising our personal data and selling it to advertisers. Facebook generates an estimated revenue of nearly $1 billion from its Indian subscribers, on which it pays no tax.

There are countless angles to this 300 crore campaign of Facebook in India.  After all who would spend 300 crores campaigning for a cause instead of investing in the cause itself? The answer is clear – a business man!

Role of TRAI (Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India)

Currently, India does not have any explicit rules enforcing net neutrality. Net Neutrality, however inherent in the invention of internet itself, is a new concept for most.

On December 12, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) floated a new paper questioning differential data pricing for content services. TRAI’s consultation paper titled, “Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services,” raises concerns over zero rating platforms being offered by telecom service providers.

The paper asks for comments on whether such differential pricing should be allowed. It asked whether these platforms could end up acting as gatekeepers of the Internet, stifling innovation and access to smaller websites, who are unable to join these platforms. Facebook created a template to be signed by supporters, after which TRAI asked for more specific comments from users, instead of the generic template.

The deadline to give suggestions was till 7th January 2016. We will have to wait to see what happens next, but there is hope in the fact that people are no more ignorant. With or without internet, knowledge is power indeed!

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Shweta is a project co-ordinator at a Pune based NGO, working on sustainable urban development. Art in all its forms captivates her, and she expresses herself through the written word, photography, doodling and short film making. Life is all about creativity, what you are is what you create. She believes every one and every thing has a story to tell and somewhere it will resonate with yours.

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