No, Mr. Zuckerberg

The fight for net neutrality in India has started again. After Facebook renamed internet.org to Free Basics and started asking users to sign a petition to “save Free Basics in India”, a lot of back and forth took place, which culminated in Mark Zuckerberg himself coming out of paternity leave to write an editorial in The Times of India.

Not the internet we want

To connect a billion people, India must choose facts over fiction

His editorial started off with this brilliant line. Okay, Mr. Zuckerberg, let’s see what you have to say.

We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good.

But, you can’t really compare a library to the internet. It’s in his statement right there - “libraries”. Plural, not singular. You don’t find a book you want in one library, you just try another one. That’s not possible in a walled internet which Free Basics is.

Over the last year Facebook has worked with mobile operators, app developers and civil society to overcome these barriers in India and more than 30 other countries. We launched Free Basics, a set of basic internet services for things like education, healthcare, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data.

More than 35 operators have launched Free Basics and 15 million people have come online. And half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full internet within 30 days.

Mr. Zuckerberg certainly paints a pretty picture of Free Basics. He simultaneously talks of people being too poor to afford an internet connection, but also says that 50% of these people switch to a paid plan with access to the full internet within 30 days. It’s one or the other, isn’t it?

Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people.

Wow, that’s some brilliant guilt-tripping. But, no. Let’s assume for the purposes of this post that Facebook has only good intentions at heart. They really want to provide users with free internet access to some sites. There are other ways of doing this. Mozilla has started some programmes in some African countries and in Bangladesh where after viewing a short advertisement, users are given access to the full internet.

…Mozilla has sought to create such an alternative within the Firefox OS ecosystem. Our partnership with Grameenphone (owned by Telenor Group) in Bangladesh allows users to receive 20 MB of data usage for free each day, in exchange for viewing an advertisement. Our partnership with Orange will allow residents of multiple African countries to purchase $40 Firefox OS smartphones that come packaged with 6 free months of voice, text, and up to 500 MB per month of data. Scaling up arrangements like these could represent a long-term solution to the key underlying problems of digital inclusion and equality.

This is a much better idea and if a non-profit like Mozilla can pull this off, Facebook certainly can. So, what can we conclude? Facebook’s intentions are obviously not as noble as they seem. The current system gives Facebook a lot more control than if they provided the full internet. And at the end of the day, Facebook is making a lot more ad revenue in this model because users will end up staying on its sites a lot longer.

And you aren’t necessarily helping people either. A survey by Quartz showed that a large number of internet.org users are actually unaware that there is an internet beyond Facebook and a handful of other sites they’re exposed to. This is nothing short of frightening. These users aren’t going to be using Free Basics as a “bridge to the full internet” as Mr. Zuckerberg puts it and that’s precisely what Facebook wants.

What can we do? Turns out Facebook isn’t the only one who can petition TRAI. Head to savetheinternet.in ASAP and show your support for an open internet!

Kishan Gupta contributed to this post.

December 29, 2015