During his town hall address at IIT Delhi, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “Those who don’t have access to the internet cannot sign online petitions.” But how can he decide what is best for them? Recent research by Amba Kak at the Oxford Internet Institute found that financially constrained users prefer buying shorter duration Internet plans (e.g. three days) with all access, as opposed to WhatsApp-only plans that are valid for one month. “All-access is the priority,” according to the research.
Many of us have benefited from the openness, plurality and diversity that the internet has to offer. We want more people to get access to the entire internet, and not private bubbles created by an Airtel, Facebook or possibly a Reliance Jio. Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik said in a letter to Trai: “If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their right to choose what they think is best for them.”
Facebook supported Net Neutrality laws for permission-less innovation in the US, but is running Free Basics, which requires its permission for inclusion, in India. Even today, Facebook — and not users — reserves the right to reject services that are available on Free Basics; Facebook allows only services that conform to its pre-defined technical guidelines. Services that compete with telecom operator services will not be allowed on Free Basics. This is not open.
Facebook’s real objective appears to be to create an alternative internet that it can control, where its current or future rivals — from Google to Indian startups — are denied access, or have to pay for being available by sharing their user data.
Allowing Free Basics and similar initiatives such as Airtel Zero (limited free-access plan) gives disproportionate power to Facebook and Airtel, respectively. According to Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founding fathers of the internet, this Zero Rating gives internet service providers (and telecom operators) the ability to “pick winners and losers online”. This can inhibit Indian startups and make them depend on intermediaries such as telecom operators or Facebook.
Facebook and Airtel have conveniently ignored other alternatives for providing internet access for free without violating Net Neutrality. In India, Aircel has begun providing access to the entire internet for free (at 64 kbps) for the first three months. Schemes such as Gigato offer data for free for surfing some sites. The Mozilla Foundation runs two programmes for free and neutral internet access. In Bangladesh, Grameenphone users get free data in exchange for watching an advertisement. In Africa, Orange users get 500 MB of free access on buying a $37 handset. One does not have to choose between Universal Access and Net Neutrality.
According to the internet and Mobile Association of India, India will have the second-largest internet user base by the end of the year. We don’t have a problem with user growth, and should not allow the creation of private bubbles. Different users should not get access to different content and experiences with different service providers.
Our policymakers need to understand that Free Basics does not address India’s key internet problem: Inadequate infrastructure. We should be lowering the cost of spectrum and right of way, so that telecom operators can provide cheaper access to the entire internet to everyone. The solution lies in increasing bandwidth, not splitting it, and providing all of the internet to all of the people, all of the time.
Nikhil Pahwa is a media entrepreneur and blogger and a volunteer with Savetheinternet.in. The views expressed are personal.