Facebook’s Free Basics: Not the big bad wolf it’s made out to be?

Mumbai, Marco D’Souza: Wait. Before unleashing a tirade of invectives at so preposterous a suggestion, let’s step back and take a long, rational look at the situation so far.

Modi and Zuckerberg

It started with Facebook announcing their ostensibly noble Internet.org initiatve in the country in February this year; a platform that saw them partnering with Reliance Communications to offer a pick of popular apps for free; the aim being to foster Internet usage among the masses.

But the real Net Neutrality debate sprung into popular mindspace only in April when Airtel outed their widely flayed Airtel Zero plan–a plan that offered toll-free access to a choice of apps. With Net Neutrality now becoming part of the country’s popular conversation, it was debated and dissected, even leading to one of the most watched YouTube videos when the fine folk at AIB took on the job of clarifying its many hairy aspects for the mobile viewing generation. The first video released in April, then the follow up that was put out in August effectively elevated to topic to dinner table discussion.

By now, there was no escaping it–any service that even remotely resembled offering a free Web service to a set of users was blacklisted as being anti Net Neutral. We as a people do after all value our freedoms–online included.

But Net Neutrality, while surprisingly simple in definition, is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. Vishal Mishra of Columbia University–a respected expert on the subject–puts it succinctly: “Net Neutrality is about the ISPs (and telecom operators) not giving a competitive advantage to any particular website or application.”



Will be happy to have Google, Twitter on Free Basics; ready for third-party audit: Facebook
So any organization in charge of providing Internet access should not accord any kind of priority access to any particular website or service–access to all of these should be equal. Simple, so no differential pricing for a service like Whatsapp or Skype which would be disadvantageous to general consumers.

But what of zero-rated apps? The kinds that are included in ‘special’ plans? Would a ‘Skype Pack’ or a ‘YouTube Binge’ broadband offer be necessarily detrimental? Before any of these questions can be answered, let’s establish some boundaries–the limits that constitute Net Neutrality in terms of the highest context–the end user.

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Here’s everything you need to know about Facebook’s battle for Free Basics
Net neutrality, by definition and extension:

Does not allow charging Internet users unfairly based upon the apps or services they use

EIC save the internet


Watch: East India Comedy explains Free Basics and Net Neutrality in under 60 seconds
Allows users the freedom of choice, to opt in or opt out of a particular Internet access plan with no adverse consequences

Now let’s hold this hypothesis against Facebook’s Free Basics initiatives. In Mark Zuckerberg’s post recently, he offered the following clarifications:

While the constituent basic internet services are offered at no cost, users are free to move to the full-fledged Web experience at any time later on.

They promise an open platform where they will partner with any telco, to allow developers to offer services free of charge.

The platform is even open to having their competitor’s services (Google and Twitter for example) on board.

This being the case, there doesn’t appear to be any ill consequences for the end user.

Let’s also understand who Free Basics is aimed at: the millions who either haven’t experienced the Internet at all, or who are on the cusp of experiencing it. It’s not something an average urban user would ever consider, and the program certainly isn’t aimed at them.

I liken this to a toddler that has no worldly awareness of what is good and bad, on what religion and education is. Which is why their initial choices are made for them, so they have a stepping stone, a basis on which to enter into these vast areas–areas in which they may choose to remain or even depart from subsequently. But those are precisely the choices they’ll be confident of making only later, after they have some grounding and context of what they can expect going forward. In the Web access context, having a platform that removes a huge barrier associated with Web access–cost–is undoubtedly a good thing.

Meanwhile, if any fear exists that supporting a platform such as Free Basics is going to set a precedent for ISPs to hold undue sway over the apps and services that run over their networks later on, that fear is definitely founded. But that is a battle that should be fought when the times comes–not now.

Mixing the possibility of future inequities with current-day initiatives that could potentially help the masses appears quite counterproductive. And this is the direction most discourse around the subject is taking these days.

As British economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.” In the early days of Internet.org and even when it became Free Basics, I–like millions of others–was hugely sceptical of the whole initiative. But as each of these doubts and concerns continue to get clarified, I now believe the service does not appear to violate Net Neutrality, a concept that I steadfastly stand by.

So until the time an ISP actually attempts to police an end-user’s Internet access, or unfairly hikes Internet access rates based on app or service, I think it’s time we avoid muddying issues with assumptions of future woe and focus on the real challenge at hand here–introducing our country’s masses to the Web.