Free Basics, now through the backdoor

A REBOOT: “The Goliath of global Internet business looks set to trounce the David of public opinion.” Picture shows a campaign against ‘Free Basics’ in Hyderabad. — FILE PHOTO: MOHAMMED YOUSUF   | Photo Credit: Mohammed_Yousuf

Over the last one year, Indians have engaged in a passionate debate on the concept of Net neutrality, whereby all content should be treated equally on the Internet. The problem of content discrimination on the Internet got most associated with Free Basics, an application by Facebook which provided its own content and that of its partners free to consumers, while all other content remained paid for. This opened the door for a forked Internet; one channel of free content but mediated through a corporate body, extracting value from the arrangement in various ways, and the other paid for.

But the Indian public protested, making light of the Rs.100-crore campaign by Facebook promoting Free Basics as an altruist project aimed at connecting the unconnected. Giving in to popular demand, i >n February 2016 the regulator banned Free Basics-like services based on discriminatory pricing of content. A decision had been taken that Internet was first a public good before being a market one.

Parminder Jeet Singh

Popular will thwarted

But then it was perhaps too was good to be true. The Goliath of global Internet business looks set to trounce the David of public opinion. The regulator is having second thoughts. A new consultation paper proposes models that will get Free Basics back, though in a slightly altered, and perhaps disingenuous, way. In agreeing to ban Free Basics everyone thought that the regulator agreed differential pricing to be an inappropriate practice, for consumers, including poor consumers, as also for the larger society. Indeed, the regulatory order eloquently argued that “price-based differentiation would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering a consumer’s online behaviour (and)... the knowledge and outlook of those users would be shaped only by the information made available through those select offerings”. It further offered reasons of freedom of expression and plurality of views for banning differential pricing.

But the present consultation paper is a complete turnaround, suggesting that these were never the problem. It was not at all the issue that Free Basics discriminated with regard to the content as received by any consumer. The real problem was that Free Basics had an exclusive agreement with just one telco to do so. It would accordingly be fine if Free Basics entered into a similar agreement with all telcos. The problem people had with Free Basics is now sought to be ‘solved’ by making Free Basics equally available across all telcos, and not just one network as earlier! However illogical it may seem, this is what the regulator seems to be planning to do.

The suggested models will just make Free Basics kind of services more ubiquitous, as well as a permanent feature, and not merely a promotional one, as earlier touted by its promoters.

The only significant new feature of the proposed models is that telcos will not be able to benefit from content-based price discrimination. However, they will facilitate ways whereby content providers can pick up the tab for consumers accessing their content (and not other). Other suggested models would get the telco entirely out of the picture, with consumers reimbursed directly by content providers for the access of their content. At the consumer end, all these models have exactly the same effect as telco-controlled models — of incentivising accessing some content and services over others, undercutting the key equalising feature of the Internet.

The regulator seems to be drawing an interesting line — services provided by telcos are under a public goods framework, but those rendered by the Internet companies subject only to free-market principles. It seems not to matter that the actual impact on individuals and societies of non-Net-neutral practices by either is exactly the same.

Internet exceptionalism

Such an attitude comes from a problematic trend that has been called “Internet exceptionalism”, whereby the Internet is considered to be some kind of uniquely regulation-free zone. The problem is, Internet activists advocating Net neutrality are often themselves guilty of it. The ‘Save the Internet’ campaign, by far the most active group in the Net neutrality struggles, declared in its first submission on the issue to the regulator last year that “no new regulatory framework in the telecom sector is required for Internet services and apps — and no such regulation should come into effect in future either”.

These Internet activists are now faced with a piquant situation when the regulator, as they themselves urged it to do earlier, is making a distinction between regulating the telcos and regulating “Internet services and apps”. This will result in people getting a non-Net-neutral Internet now through an Internet platform instead of a telco one. This group’s new submission now argues that whether Net neutrality violation is done by telcos or by an Internet platform it should be banned, apparently reversing their earlier stand.

Laws and regulations should govern for social outcomes, and not just technology or business processes. It is high time that we gave up the telecom-Internet distinction. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is the regulator for our communication infrastructure and systems. Many Internet services and apps fit this description as much as a telephone network does. Communication systems of the society are of such special social significance as to require committed regulation and not just be treated as ordinary market goods.

Having banned Free Basics-like content discrimination services when involving a telco, it is ludicrous to now propose to allow the same by Internet companies directly. This attempt to bring back the much-detested Free Basics through the backdoor, by making an absurd distinction between telecom and ‘Internet services’, is the right opportunity for us to get out of this wrong binary regulatory mindset. We must consider our old and new communication systems as one important social sector requiring close regulatory watch in public interest.

Parminder Jeet Singh works with the Bengaluru-based NGO, IT for Change. He has been an adviser to the Chair of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum. E-mail:

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 10:06:24 PM |

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