Benign gatekeeper not the solution

The changes to, significantly, came barely days before Mr. Modi met with Mr. Zuckerberg.

The changes to, significantly, came barely days before Mr. Modi met with Mr. Zuckerberg.  

Even if one were to acknowledge that Free Basics has a role, in the best interests of the Internet’s openness, it has to be argued that such a role can only be a stopgap

It’s hard not to appreciate Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dogged pursuit of acceptance for his idea — >, which is about providing a taste of the Internet to those who have no access to it, despite the heat it has generated in countries such as India.

The social network giant, which, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly pointed out, would be the > third-most populous in the world if it were a country, last week announced a few changes to, including a new identity, >Free Basics. The changes come just a few months after a huge uproar in India over being antithetical to the idea of Net neutrality, which is that nobody plays the gatekeeper to the Internet.

Sriram Srinivasan
Earlier this year, Facebook tied up with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications to launch the service in India. The start was surprisingly quiet, given that only a few months earlier India’s netizens had risen quite vocally against India’s No. 1 telecom carrier Bharti Airtel’s decision to charge consumers extra for use of apps such as Skype to make free calls over the Internet. The awareness about Net neutrality, the principle that all data must be treated equally, caught on.

Before long, found itself caught in the wrong end of the Net neutrality debate. Amid massive public outrage, Mr. Zuckerberg defended the idea. This, even as numerous petitions against it were signed and partners such as NDTV and Cleartrip decided to opt out of the platform.

Fast forward to now. The service is available in 19 countries. In February, India became the sixth country to have That points to quite a fast scale up.

Indian market crucial

The changes to, significantly, came barely days before >Mr. Modi met with Mr. Zuckerberg. India currently represents Facebook’s second-biggest user base in the world even as it still has a large population of Internet have-nots. It is clear that Facebook needs the blessings of India’s policymakers. It is also clear that the social network has worked to make the idea more politically palatable.

This is how: the brand name change, for instance, is much more than just cosmetic, as’s likeness with the real Internet was considered to be hugely misleading. Already, as a Quartz story in February this year, citing a study, showed, many Facebook users in Indonesia had no idea they were using the Internet. The story said, “This is more than a matter of semantics. The expectations and behaviours of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the Internet evolves.” So, the name change does matter, even if Facebook won’t explicitly say so.

Also, to be fair, Free Basics is more open than its earlier avatar, with Facebook some months back opening up its platform for outside developers. The service started just as a collection of some pre-selected websites that got chosen through an obscure process. Encryption of information flowing through the platform is the other initial loophole that has been plugged.

It is difficult to believe it is just altruism that is making companies such as Facebook, with business models directly linked to numbers with access, solve the problem of connectivity.

All of that, however, can’t erase the fundamental problem with such a service, which is that it allows Facebook to be a gatekeeper to the Internet where none existed earlier.

There’s surely a case to be made for Free Basics in a country such as India, where universal access to the Internet is still a long way away. As Mr. Zuckerberg likes to say, more than a billion Indians don’t have access to the Net.

And it is absolutely true that the have-nots “can’t enjoy the same opportunities many of us take for granted.” There is also some merit in the thinking that people who can afford Internet cannot sit in judgement about the quality of Internet that is made available for those who cannot afford it.

Free options

But even if one were to acknowledge that Free Basics has a role, in the best interests of Internet’s openness it has to be argued that such a role can only be a stopgap. Even today, it can be argued that Free Basics is a suboptimal solution to the problem of lack of Internet access.

There are alternatives that manage to offer free data to users without donning the role of a gatekeeper. One such alternative goes by the name Jana. The Boston-based start-up’s pitch is that it has figured out a way to offer Internet access to billions of people in the emerging world without it playing gatekeeper. And its pitch appears more convincing.

Jana rewards its smart phone users in two ways, as an article about it in The Hindu some months back pointed out. It reimburses users the cost of downloading its clients’ app. It also gives them free data, with which they can access any content online.

It’s also extremely difficult to believe it is just altruism that is making companies such as Facebook look to solve the problem of connectivity. The business models of Internet companies, Facebook included, is directly linked to the number of people that can be brought under Internet access. More the merrier!

Whether Free Basics will pass the Net neutrality test of India’s administrators is anybody’s guess. Even if it does, there are enough reasons to believe it must have an expiry date if the government is serious about providing universal Internet access.

It’s an ‘A’ for Mr. Zuckerberg’s determination to see succeed. As far as the government is concerned, it must now work towards delivering the real deal (cheap, easy and universal access) in the years to come, so that the likes of Free Basics can become redundant fast.

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2020 12:58:18 PM |

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