Some basic questions

Though couched in a language of philanthropy, Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ campaign raises several questions on net neutrality and big data

December 22, 2015 08:33 pm | Updated May 31, 2016 09:05 pm IST - Hyderabad

The term ‘Free Basics’ sounds very harmless, very philanthropic even. On Thursday, Facebook users were notified to sign up for ‘Free Basics’, a campaign which claimed to be the “first step to connecting one billion Indians to opportunities online – and achieving digital equality in India.” What Facebook is telling us is this. “Free Basics gives people access to vital services like communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information – all without data charges. It helps those who can't afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile operators.”

Here’s why this is indeed a smart move, replete with underlying implications, by Facebook. First, it rebranded its Internet dot Org campaign by associating itself with the Indian Government and partnering with a Telecom giant. Second, the entire exercise of sending an email to TRAI in support of ‘free basics’ was made to look like a socially responsible activity, ‘digital equality’ to be precise. Also it overdid itself by including a phrase that advised the user to beware of certain vocal groups of critics who were lobbying against ‘Free Basics’ as being anti-net-neutral and thereby urging them to raise their voice in support of the 1 billion Indians who would benefit.

“Facebook is a for-profit media business, and like any other business, it justifiably looks to expand its market. What I find most dangerous about, is that while it is pitched as a philanthropic mission by Facebook, the details of its workings are not quite transparent”, says Smarika Kumar, formerly with Alternative law forum. Another good question to ponder upon is who is Facebook to decide what internet basics are and why does the user not get to decide, she questions.

Manjith Mothiram, an entrepreneur from Chennai says, “Facebook, by rebranding its to Free Basics, seems to raise more questions. If it were truly free why did Facebook release a developer toolkit? At the end of the day net neutrality shouldn't be violated.”

While a number of unsuspecting users who are oblivious to the underlying mission behind Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ campaign are bound to sign the petition, several others took to twitter and Facebook to express their lack of conviction on the petition and to warn others from signing it.

“Information is the new age high; it’s the new age weapon as well. These service providers will get to know you more rationally than anyone else with the Big Data they accumulate about your everyday routine, financial transactions, search histories, personal conversations etc. Information you will not consciously share with a company that’s ambitiously trying to make everyone a default subscriber,” says GeeVee.

In Smarika’s opinion, preservation or not of net neutrality is a highly complex public policy, legal and ethical issue with implications for right to equality, free speech, innovation on internet, media diversity on internet, access to internet, censorship on internet, and the economics of internet businesses. While the entire debate had its national limelight a few months ago, Facebook has come back with a new pitch aimed at monopolizing the Indian Internet arena. While digitizing a nation that is populous as India seems like a cause aimed at development, ‘at what cost?’ is a crucial question that needs to be answered immediately.

TRAI has recently issued a consultation paper on differential pricing for data services on December 9 and has invited comments by December 30 from its stake holders. Among the questions proposed, TRAI also looks at the implications of permitting differential pricing for data usage and the measures that could be adopted to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination, transparency, affordable internet access, competition and market entry and innovation.

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