When it comes to the stark operating contrasts of corporations in the first world and the developing world, no comparison is better than that of the Indian battle for net neutrality. Net-neutrality has been thrown around both in the U.S. and most countries to describe and ongoing global struggle to keep the Internet a platform that is unrestricted by government or corporations and does not restrict content based off of biases. Such instances of this could be Internet service providers choosing to give greater bandwidth access to particular affiliate websites or making access to some websites difficult for those who fail to purchase an upgraded package. For India though, the battle has been much different and laden with confusing propaganda.
Facebook, one of the most globally recognizable faces in social media set its sights on the Indian people with their initiative for free Internet. Cleverly disguised as “internet.org” before having been forced into switching the name to “Free Basics” in late September of last year; Facebook has been on a campaign this last year of lies, deceit, and misinformation to promote their Free Basics service. Free Internet access to millions of people sounds like a saintly maneuver but in the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero, “cui bono?”
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”
Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and early member of Facebook Board-of-Directors, took to Twitter following the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) decision to block Free Basics in early February. Prudent to save some face, Andreessen quickly redacted his post and apologized, claiming that he in no way supports colonialism. Actions speak much louder than words and luckily for the Indian people, the neocolonial intentions of Facebook were plain as day.
Riding in like the glorious savior to the developing peoples of India, Facebook was swift to declare its good intentions proclaiming that internet access is a basic human right. Everyone should have access to the Internet and services, even stripped down versions such as Free Basics. Giving free bandwidth to their suite of tools; even going as far as restricting advertising on their platforms, it seemed like Facebook only had the most noble intentions going in.
The initiative of internet.org and Free Basics works like this; Facebook oversees a wall-garden of free Internet that can be accessed by anyone with a mobile phone. This walled off section of the Internet includes access to stripped down versions of websites which do not require a heavy use of bandwidth. Stripped down services would include messaging, weather applications, health services, and affiliate job marketplace. While Facebook did allow affiliates to join this section of free Internet it quickly came under scrutiny as affiliates began falling out of the program. Worries mounted over Facebook conspiring with mobile carriers on deciding which websites could be included.
Fearing what this meant for net-neutrality, many of the affiliates backed out of the program and 70 advocacy organizations wrote to Zuckerberg to decry the service. Since this backlash, Mark Zuckerberg was quick to appeal to the issues that the advocacy groups raised and changed the name of the program to “Free Basics” to stave off some of the heat. The notion put forward by Zuckerberg after the incident was that Free Basics is meant to give access, even if it is limited while we find a way to give unfettered access to the entirety of the web.
Internet data around the world is out of the grasp of 85% of the global population and even for those with access to the Internet, data can often be expensive. Free Basics provided Indian people with access to their own services but kept access to the breadth of the Internet behind their walls. Free Basics sought to be a walled garden in which Facebook can limit what users have access to and who can be permitted into their free web. While some would argue that a little Internet is greater than no Internet access it creates a system wherein the domestic Indian websites and startups are forced to go through the guidelines set by Facebook in order to have their content displayed for free.
Perhaps the most compelling issue is the literacy rates of India which tend to be related with poverty levels. The most impoverished, tend to be afflicted by illiteracy through a lack of solid education. With 74% literacy, this rate drastically reduced when we look at the proportion of which who can speak and read English as well (~10.35%). That small minority which has a command of both Hindi and English tend to be those who are not so incredibly impoverished that they require the use of Free Basics and are most likely already using the internet. If they are offering services which act to supplement formal education, it will be incredibly useless to a population which still maintains high illiteracy rates in those impoverished regions.
What this gives Facebook is the role of a gate guardian to delegate which products, websites and more importantly, ideas, can be displayed to all Free Basics users. The close ties that Facebook has had with government officials such as the visits with Indian PM, Narendra Modi, have been particularly suspect for the net-neutrality movements in India. Worries about collusion with the government to put a clamp on access to open news sources for everyone. While Facebook works to establish a walled off section of Internet for the developing nation of India, PM Modi prefers to use Indian assets to construct 182 meter tall statues.
It seems that the Indian government and PM Modi could have used some advice on running an economy and budgeting during those talks with Facebook, rather than how best to get their free Internet. There is a cost though, an unspoken cost. The ISP (Internet Service Provider) and telecom infrastructure and operation of such costs money. In order to provide the service of Free Basics, the cost will have to come from paying subscribers which halts the incentive to reduce the cost of Internet access in the long term. This move also drastically
A great lie has been sold to the people of India where instead of funding education and medicine, they can instead fund educational apps and medical inquiry sites on Free Basics. All while being told that the bill is being fronted by the rich at Silicon Valley. Make no mistake, there is no charity here. There is no free lunch for the people of India and this redirection of assets towards a proto-Orwellian Internet space and massive statues is a disgusting move. What this opens the door for is billions worth in advertising, which Facebook can pocket. What is opens the door for is the proliferation of U.S. affiliates like Uber to expand and have a severely unfair advantage against domestic Indian services. It gives the key of media access to Zuckerberg/Modi and the key of commerce to foreign corporations.
While the situation appears to many a severe violation of net-neutrality, time will tell whether Indian courts decide to uphold the TRAI ban on Free Basics. For now, the dust must settle on the argument which has grown incredibly heated. Perhaps home-grown alternatives to Free Basics may appeal more for the people of India. With the exponential growth of smart phone use could have the potential to drive down the cost of data plans. Hopefully, the pressure and spotlight put on Free Basics and the TRAI allows for a discussion on making data access affordable for the people of India. A country which is barred from using the Internet freely loses an entire platform that can allow for the free spread of thoughts, media, and subversive ideas.