The Internet.org initiative by Facebook was renamed to ‘Free Basics’ just ahead of PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Facebook HQ. According to Facebook, Free Basics is a service that provides free access to basic Internet services to people who cannot afford internet access.
It claims to get India closer to the ‘Digital India’ that aims at getting people access to the internet, from service providers that sign up with Facebook to offer their services free of cost.
This free basic internet access is only limited to websites and applications that partner with Facebook, and it is at Facebook’s discretion to decide what and how these services function.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality simply means that the internet service providers (ISPs) should provide unrestricted, non-throttled and fair access to all internet services without blocking, slowing or speeding any of the services or products over the other. It means that an internet service provider should not favor a particular service or thwart another regardless of the affiliations and relations between the ISPs and the service sources.
Put simply, giving a higher priority or access speed to one service gives an unfair competitive edge or a head start to that particular service over the others and this, in its original form goes against Digital Equality or Net neutrality. It would thwart startups and small companies from being able to compete with large-scale corporations already settled in the business leading to a monopoly.
A monopoly is very bad for the consumers where lack of competition leads to a poor quality of services and products being delivered with consumers forced to pay exorbitant prices for lack of choices.
Is Free Basics by Facebook Anti-Net Neutrality?
Free Basics is an initiative by Facebook, a private organisation that provides free access to ‘basic’ internet services to people who cannot afford internet access right now. Facebook is going to partner with Reliance to provide free access to these services through the Reliance network in India. Facebook gets to decide what and how these basic services are and services that wish to get onboard need to sign up with Facebook. A self-claimed righteous person wants to act as a watchman or door guard to a highly valuable public property and is offering to do so for free.
This particular person is assuring the people that they will be fair to everyone, and people’s progress is all they want. Anyone wanting in on the property needs to ask permission from this watchman, and all their communications need to go through this generous watchman of ours which make it all accessible to the watchman. Now, the watchman here is obviously, Facebook and the open and free internet is the highly valuable public property.
Why You Should NOT Support Facebook’s Misleading Free Basics Campaign?
There is nothing wrong with allowing free access to services for people who cannot afford an internet connection. Free Basics seems to be different than Airtel Zero in the sense that it is a more open platform. Any service provider or product developer can sign up with Facebook to offer their services on the Free Basics platform. The problem is that the entity that provides free access to a basic resource gains an unhealthy and potentially dangerous influence that simply does not allow it to remain noble for long.
It becomes too tempting of a prospect, especially for a profit-seeking business organisation that has its major revenue through this very resource. It would be very great if what the watchman claims, actually happens; free access to the poor with the ability for any service provider or product developer to offer their services; the ability for providers other than Reliance to get onboard the program without any additional royalties or fees.
But, it is too much of a shot in the dark to rest so much power in the hands of one entity, whatsoever it claims may be. Access to an ecosystem is a common ability, and no single entity must always control it. The control to such a resource should always be with all, or else with a majority, but never with a minority. And never with a profit seeking business consortium.
Facebook has been presenting users with a misleading question asking if they would like to support digital equality and hence Free Basics in India and would like to send a message to TRAI for Free Basics. Now this question asked by Facebook gives the user an illusion of choice. There is not an option to say no to the recommendation. The users can either select to support Free Basics or are presented with an option ‘Maybe Later’.
What is worse is that even landing on the Free Basics email page has reportedly sent out notifications to friends of a few users, even without clicking the submit button! Facebook has managed to get 3.2 million Indian users to show for the support of Free Basics through this practice. Facebook might have plans for a better connected India, and Free Basics might have helped a lot of people till now too. Mark Zuckerberg maintains that Free Basics is not against net neutrality.
“With Free Basics, we are letting developers offer zero-rated services. This is powerful. We are not being a filter of any content going through that,” Zuckerberg announced.
So far with all the half-cut knowledge being presented to the users, the ridiculous notifications being sent without reason and Facebook leading innocent users to support Free Basics when in actuality, they have no idea what they are being led to, it seems like the Wolf is asking for us to trust him in guarding the sheep.