Free Basics is a part of the internet.org initiative launched by facebook on 25 September 2015 to provide free access to services like health,education,jobs,communication to people who cannot afford data charges.This will be available to all subscribers of Reliance(tough luck for everyone else) in the country. These are the basic services that will be provided.
8.Times of India
15.BabyCenter & MAMA
21.Facts for life
31.Malaria No More
36.Reuters Market Lite
Lets get something clear here. Although the target demographic is said to be the poor of the country,its unlikely that it will be exclusively used by the poor alone. No Below Poverty Line Card or Ration Card needs to be brandished while accessing the net and there is no positive discrimination of any sort. So lets not kid ourselves here. Supporting FreeBasics is’nt as egalitarian as its made out to be. Free Facebook and Messanger without eating into our data pack is a dream come true for any one of us!!!
A few days back,Facebook came out with a petition which claimed to be for “digital equality” saying that it would benifit the poor.I assume here they are talking about me as well as i’m normally poor from the 15th-30th/31st of every month.They’ve gone even further by insinuating that net neutrality is an elitist agenda and is anti-poor. Critics have hit out hard saying that Facebook is being sneaky, preying on our sense of humanity to change the very perception of what net neutrality is. Facebook had previously come out with the internet.org initiative which was heavily criticised to the extent that most of its its partners withdrew knowing the public would never back such a shady deal. Facebook has now reinvented itself and has tried to put net neutrality on the defensive while claiming that its only wanting to help the poor. As an article in the Times of India put it. “Free Basics and internet.org are one in the same. Its old wine in a new bottle.”
Facebook is behaving pretty much the same way as big tobacco or the opponents of global warming. Though we have labels warning people of the dangers of smoking there was a time when there were advertisements on TV showing how good it was – from people smoking in planes to women in hospital beds having a smoke!!Sounds unbelievable? Today as a major amount of tobbacco sales is in Indonesia,we have kids there smoking in groups as well as therapy that runs under the premise that smoking has cancer healing properties !!While this may seem like scenes from the twilight zone, this is prevalent in Indonesia as the perception about the harmful effects of smoking is blurred. There was a time when global warming was also challenged especially in the United States. This is despite the United Nations Framework Covention on Climate Change which has proved through scientific evidence that global warming was real.It is important to know these examples because facebook is advocating something that is harmful in the long term. They are going to attack net neutrality by changing the very meaning of it. The way things are going they are probably start going to get experts now who will claim that FreeBasics is a good change and will again portray net neutrality as an elitist agenda.What we have then is a very confused public that doesnt know what to believe and a criticism on Free Basics will always be looked upon with suspicion.
Internet.org was an initiative by Facebook claiming that it wanted to bring access to selected internet sites to the poor for free.Facebook was heavily criticised by many including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web because such an initiative would violate the principles of net neutrality.Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. Violation of this has many negative consequences and a non legislation on upholding the principle of Net Neutrality can lead to new innovative methods to stifle the internet,rob the consumer,enforcing a police state and curb free speech.
The most immediate problem associated with violating net neutrality is that the Internet Service Provider(ISP) can give preferential treatment to those sites that it “likes”(or pays a good fee) leaving all the others high and dry. Innovation which is a hallmark would then be thrown into the dustbin of history. Facebook,Youtube etc all started out small and have completely changed the face of the internet. Experts say that the best of the internet is yet to come and imposing a fee on innovation & variety will have a negative effect on the consumer.
Another issue involved is the internet becoming a propoganda factory and would start resembling Communist China.Propoganda flooding the free sites will gain more traction than the paid sites and would be taken as the truth by a majority of the population. The freedom of information is what makes the internet so important and giving free access to a moth eaten form of this to the poor is not the solution to provide basic access to the poor.
In the Indian context, Telecom companies could start charging customers a higher rate for making voice calls from apps like Skype,Viber etc. In essence apart from paying for an internet connection the consumer would additionally have to just to make Skype calls! Think its far fetched? To those of you who missed it, Airtel had a plan in December 2014 by which prepaid customers had to buy exclusive packs if they wanted to make voice calls using the internet(VOIP:Voice Over Internet Protocol).These exclusive packs were for Rs.75 for 75 MB for 28 days. Thankfully this did not materialise but Airtel had the last laugh as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India(TRAI) has said that Airtel is fully within its legal rights to go ahead with the plan.
There are plans in the works where streaming from Youtube would mean that in addition to paying your Internet Service Provider you would also have to pay something called an “interconnect charge”. Basically, it means even though we are paying the ISP for accessing the net. We need to pay them more money if we want to access Youtube. As Sunil Mittal CEO of Bharti Airtel said in justification of this. “Operators are under extreme pressures. If we are going to build the highways, there has to be a tax on the highways,” Though this seems unfair this would again be legal as there are no net neutrality laws in the country.
Furthermore, Net neutrality is already being violated rampantly by certain telecom companies even as we speak. To those of us who download movies and music using torrents, we’ve had the experience of the downloads going at a snail’s pace despite having a good internet connection(and a good number of seeds!!). One may even open another page just to see if something is wrong with the internet connection. What’s happening is something called ‘Bandwidth Throttling’ which is the intentional slowing of Internet service by an Internet service provider. It is a reactive measure employed in communication networks to regulate network traffic and minimize bandwidth congestion.So while your Facebook page loads with no issues your downloads of torrent files would not be as fast despite having a fast and expensive connection. According to Google backed measurement Lab(M-Lab) in the first quarter of 2012 Airtel blocked upto 33% of BitTorrent Traffic.
The above points haven’t even scratched the surface on the many negative implications that violating net neutrality can have on the country. Facebook’s claim that they’re doing this for the poor is a cruel joke as this is an attempt at capturing the market and nothing else. The existence of Free Basics fundamentally weakens the principle of net neutrality as telecom companies can launch more aggressive violations of net neutrality citing Free Basics as an example. Free Basics is also going to fundamentally change what information will eventually reach the end user apart from from blurring the line between Facebook and Internet with many people who use the services not knowing what the difference is.From the Indian growth point of view, The reign of mass slave systems run by Infosys & TCS is coming to an end in India. Startups are sprouting all over the country which will lead to massive innovation in terms of local solutions to local problems and an exponential rise in the growth of the country. India is in a transition period and this is the moment of make or break for the nation. The re-emergence of India as a superpower lies in the hands of the many,not the few.
The best way to move forward is to have proper legislation. i.e, laws that can safeguard the interests of the consumer and the startup. At the moment no net neutrality laws exist in the country. The democratic way in which TRAI is obtaining the views of the people is laudable but an informed debate is needed or misinformation spread by Facebook can result in a toothless law to safeguard net neutrality.