Bengaluru, the information technology capital of India, is vehemently opposing social network Facebook’s controversial Internet service as it fears a ‘digital colonisation by the West.’
The people opposing Facebook Internet service, called Free Basics, include startup entrepreneurs, students, activists and tech employees. Most of them are based in Bengaluru, which is home to approximately 3,100 to 4,900 active tech startups and is ranked 15th-best startup ecosystem in the world.
They said India has just woken up to the advantages of mobile Internet and any such splitting will create a ‘have versus have not’s list' in the country.
“At the start of startup India revolution, we cannot have some Indian developers and entrepreneurs blocked by large corporates to access consumer,” said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of mobile Internet company One97 and mobile payments firm Paytm. “If telecom operators are allowed to split Internet, it will be a near death experience for Indian startup eco system.”
Mr. Sharma is among many tech entrepreneurs and employees, who are venting off their resentment on platforms like Twitter and Medium, a blog-publishing platform.
SaveTheInternet.in, an Indian web petition portal to support the principle of net neutrality in India, is also very actively opposing Free Basics.
Free Basics allows customers to access selected social networks, and services like healthcare, education and job listings from their phones without a data plan. However startup entrepreneurs are opposing the service. They said that it violates net neutrality, a concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Net neutrality requires that the Internet be maintained as an open platform, on which network providers treat all content, applications and services equally, without discrimination. This is emphasised by over 60 groups and experts across the world on www.thisisnetneutrality.org.
“The practice of zero rating (toll-free data or sponsored data) is not compatible with this (net neutrality), since it allows companies to act as 'stronger gatekeepers' and discriminate against the open Internet,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access Now, an international non-profit, human rights, public policy, and advocacy group dedicated to an open and free Internet.
Free Basics developers can’t innovate on technology without the permission of Facebook, experts said. Telecom operators and Facebook also need to approve services. Entrepreneurs say there is a need for unbiased, equal Internet that treats all developers same.
“No developer should need to take a license or apply to someone to bring new idea to Indians or any one in the world,” said Mr. Sharma of Paytm. He said any segregation of the Internet into fast and slow, free or paid, app or web will undermine Prime Minister Narendra Modi's digital India program.
VoIP A key aspect of the Internet is that a user can choose to visit any website and access any service. In Free Basics, Facebook has decided voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and video are not good for users, so they will not have them.
Since Google hasn’t signed up as a partner with Facebook, users cannot access it. This also includes any of the billions of websites that haven't partnered with Facebook.
“In sociology, this locus of decision-making ability is called ‘agency’,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, founder of Bengaluru-based tech community HasGeek and one of the key members of the SaveTheInternet.in campaign.
He said Free Basics shifts ‘agency’ (who has decision making rights) from the end user to Facebook. But India’s constitution guarantees ‘agency’ to each citizen, which is why they have fundamental rights and universal franchise. “Free Basics wants to take it away,” said Mr. Jonnalagadda.
Experts say even more worrying is the fact that Facebook wants this right to take away agency enshrined in law. This is why they’re lobbying Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) so heavily. While Facebook may claim to be benign, once it is legally approved, others will abuse it for private gain, according to the experts.
“This is why we’re calling it ‘Digital Colonialism, the exploitation of resources while denying rights,” said Mr. Jonnalagadda.
He is also of view that Free Basics, like all forms of zero rating, comes from the same school of thought that considers a 'benevolent dictatorship' better than democracy for progress.
“In India we’ve seen this taken to the extreme once with the emergency. We don’t want any further evidence of the harm possible,” said Mr. Jonnalagadda.
Sharad Sharma, co-founder of Bengaluru-based software product think tank iSPIRT said that it is fine for companies to sponsor free access to their Internet in general. “But, consumers should have choice of using any telco provider and still get the benefit,” said Mr. Sharma.
Facebook had earlier collaborated with telecommunications company Reliance Communications to provide its proposed ‘Free Basics’ plan. However, TRAI has told Reliance Communications to delay the launch of Free Basics.
Special deal Mr. Sharma of iSPIRT said telecos should not have special deal like the partnership between Reliance Communications and Facebook to provide free Internet. “This violates the fundamental net neutrality principle,” he said.
He said companies should pay money, data time or anything else to the consumer directly by using tools like Gigato, a data-sponsoring app. These tools reimburse users for data without violating the net neutrality.
Meanwhile, India also witnessed street-level protests in Gachibowli, a major IT suburb of Hyderabad. The protestors were sitting under a tent and were trying to discredit Facebook’s Free Basics initiative.
The Free Software Movement of India (FSMI) organised protests in several towns across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh with a demand to scrap it.
The members are trying to convince people about their stand through various social media initiatives. They said people who have signed up to support the online campaign of ‘Free Basics’ can reverse their decision by visiting their website 'saynotofreebasics.fsmi.in'
This week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made renewed pitch for its Free Basics Internet service saying it protects net neutrality. Mr.Zuckerberg whose Facebook is spending billions of dollars on projects to deliver Internet to under-served areas using satellites, drones and lasers, appeared on a video to personally promote Free Basics. He also wrote a personal appeal in one of the newspapers.