Free Basics: Neither Free Nor Even Basic

Capitalism is so twisted that it can create massive fortunes for a tiny handful by giving a little something to ‘the poor’. While the wars of the last century were over oil, access to information is the sphere of power and control in this one.

Here is why we all need to sit up and take note:

Over the past several months, Indian newspapers and hoardings at traffic crossings were awash with massive ads calling for support for Free Basics – with images of Indian men, women, and children, India’s little working people, really, beaming at the idea that there was going to be free access to the internet, accompanied by statements on how terribly empowering this was all going to be for ‘the poor’. That is what Facebook’s Free Basics campaign was suggesting. And believe this: they spent Rs 300 crore on this campaign, which is based on a big and subtle lie. Not so subtle, though, if you sit down and unpack it.

In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, floated a platform called in collaboration with six phone companies with the stated intention of improving access to the internet among the poor in countries willing to partner with it. By the end of 2015, it had found telecom partners in countries like Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Colombia, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, Malawi, Senegal, and India, among others. What this partnership meant was that the partner telecom company is paid for a certain bandwidth so that FB and a small set of other sites are offered free, with the respective telecom company deciding to charge the user for straying anywhere else on the internet. Very quickly, the barefacedness of the name became very clear when it came to light that what Zuckerberg et al wanted was for the ‘world’s poor’ who would not otherwise afford access to the internet to (mis)take that tiny pool of websites to be the Internet. Studies quickly demonstrated that those who had signed on, not out of choice, for this package, thought that Facebook was in fact the Internet!

In the face of widespread criticism, Zuckerberg et al equally quickly repackaged the same ploy as Free Basics. The timing was perfect – the newly named scheme was ready to welcome Narendra Modi on his trip to the US. The criticism was based on the fact that this kind of machination violates the principle of net neutrality.

What is net neutrality? It is the understanding that all traffic, content, and applications are treated as equal by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) irrespective of source or destination, that all websites be accessible at the same speed without discrimination or intervention by ISPs or any other party. Activists for a free internet have rightly compared Internet access to electricity – that if you are paying for a certain amount of electricity, the provider has no right to decide whether you use it to run a washing machine or fans or to charge your phone or watch your TV. Net neutrality demands that ISPs do not prefer one website or another in creating faster lanes of access for certain sites. If you decide that you want 100 MB of data, it should be your right to decide that you want to use it all up to do one thing or several, and the ISPs therefore have no right to charge you for watching youtube because it takes up your data in a short time. Just as a telecom company cannot decide who you call or what you say on phone when you pay for their service.

How Free Basics violates the principle of net neutrality: in tying up with particular telecom companies who are ready to come aboard, such as Airtel and Reliance in India, Facebook and around a hundred other sites are offered for free. This does not include competitor sites, and with Indian telecom companies lobbying in favour of Free Basics, and therefore picking and choosing what can be offered free and what can be charged, every internet user in the country, both present and future, runs the risk of being locked into a very tiny corner in the Internet of the ISP’s making. This means no freedom to decide how you use the Internet. Telecom companies are in it for the profits they seek to make from prospective new users as well as current users who can be made to pay for straying anywhere beyond the boundaries set by big business. This also means that new/small websites, developers, applications that cannot afford to strike the bargain with Facebook/Free Basics and big telecom can actually be kept off internet traffic, whether it is for business or for information purposes.

As a regulatory body that will arbitrate on the future of such dodgy initiatives, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) invited responses from the public. The crucial point raised by the regulator was the matter of differential pricing: economists will tell you that in a system where everything must be milked for profit, differential pricing is a practice where the same quality and quantity of a product will be offered at different prices to different users. This would mean that different ISPs could have the right to decide whether they will price access to different websites, applications, and platforms differently. It is anybody’s guess – respective ISPs can allow fast or slow access to sites that can pay their way through, leaving out or slowing down access to those that cannot, pricing data usage on amount of data used, for different times of day it can be used etc. This simply creates the space for ISPs to create further competition by skewing information flows depending on where the money comes from. Whenever telecom companies have done this where user vigilance is sharper, they have failed precisely because users have risen up in one voice in support of the principle of net neutrality. In fact, newer research has yielded the finding that those underprivileged sections of different societies that these campaigns seek to address would rather have limited access to the whole Internet than have unlimited access to the tiny rear corner of a dark cave, which is what the ‘free’ in Free Basics really is.

When TRAI invited responses on whether ISPs may be allowed to exercise differential pricing, Facebook stormed in with its patently dishonest tactics. In conjunction with the 300 crore campaign, Facebook decided to ‘generate’ appropriately ‘favourable’ public opinion that would influence the TRAI’s view on the matter. It instituted the ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign, and with one click, you could send a templated e mail to the regulator from your account saying you were in favour of Free Basics. TRAI had asked Facebook to get respondents to answer to particular questions that had been raised in a paper it had published last December as part of a wider consultative process, both analyzing the situation and seeking the public’s opinion on differential pricing, in fact raising concerns about limiting the internet. That one click was not an informed decision on the part of the majority that was misled by the Facebook campaign. In fact, the TRAI has since administered a firm rap on Facebook’s knuckles, accusing the social media monster of reducing a meaningful consultative exercise to a ‘crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll’. In fact, TRAI also earlier asked Reliance Communications to suspend its Free Basics service. After its recent consultation with ISPs, users, and internet activists campaigning for net neutrality, a further position by the regulator is awaited.

Now, this is not a debate between ISPs/telecom companies and regulators mandated by the state. It must be remembered that all this is about providing ‘Internet access’, and my simple mind tells me, I will be the one to decide how I will use the Internet. Why should anyone else direct what I do in how I seek to hunt out information or entertainment, contribute ideas or share my thoughts? The Internet is an open resource, and nobody wants to be locked in a tiny cell with the ideologically motivated and money driven preferences of Facebook/Free Basics and greedy telecoms. Imagine for a moment – if Free Basics is allowed free reign, will a bunch of small farmers, who cannot stand what Monsanto is doing to biodiversity and seeking to set up a website for sharing expertise on seed preservation or cowdung and neem fertilizer be allowed to place their website on this platform? Or will curious researchers investigating Facebook’s links with the CIA and its sharing user data with the NSA be allowed to publish their findings? And by the way, this is not some alarmist-paranoid mythmaking: it is well known, that Facebook, Apple, and Google have been aware that the US intelligence agency, the National Security Agency (NSA) had tapped into their user data. Facebook’s own funding has come indirectly through individuals associated with agencies working closely with the CIA. Those researching these connections have now established Facebook as an effective data mining and surveillance tool.

Poor Zuckerberg may shout himself hoarse with his ‘connectivity is a human right’ doggerel, but users everywhere are now increasingly aware that they do not want even their dog’s picture to be ‘mined’ by the NSA. TRAI, the Indian regulator, will have to act on behalf of all those who currently use the internet and those who will join these swelling numbers, and not on behalf of multinational giants. While it is true that there is still only a small percentage in India that have access to the Internet, this is a space that is proving to be an important site to educate, inform, and organize people. Well, obviously, this is not something that the movers and stirrers at the cauldron of global capital want. Yet, if these new users, however underprivileged, are to be locked into a framework of ‘something is better than nothing because capitalists can still milk them for money’, the long term setbacks will be there for all to see. In terms of the people’s right to information, this will mean that if we agree to scams like Free Basics, we will have surrendered this right, held back the transformative potential of this open (if not free) resource, creating a brand new caste system of the information age.

It is clear, then, that equitable access to information (as also to education, healthcare, and wholesome nourishment) must be a right. The word ‘equitable’ is something that dear Mark forgot. And in this war, that is now well under way, there will be no weapons, but the insidiousness of new age machinations of corporations may yet well take us all down. This is only one reason why absolutely everyone needs to stand in favour of unrestricted access to information.

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