Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was in India, defending his company’s initiative Internet.org, promoted now in a new avatar called Free Basics. The programme’s key feature is free access to select websites, or zero rating.
Facebook claims it will help to extend Internet access to millions who find data charges unaffordable. Its critics see it as an attempt to segment the Internet, where web content controlled by Facebook would be easier and cheaper to access than the rest of the Internet. There is strong ground to believe that the critics’ case is flawed since, the outcome they fear would commercially hurt the very companies that offer Free Basics.
How does Free Basics work? Facebook ties up with mobile operators willing to waive data charges for services in the package. According to its website Free Basics includes ‘services such as news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information’. The mobile operator receives no payment from either Facebook or any of the service providers.
It would be naïve to argue that such a package of services is or can be a substitute for the full Internet with over one billion websites. More so, if it excludes video entertainment, often considered the big pull for mass consumption.
It might be argued that adding popular services and video to Free Basics could expand impact and eventually confirm the critics’ fears. However, this will remove any incentive for the mobile operator to offer Free Basics. An operator’s interest in Free Basics would stem from the assumption that a user attracted by the freebies will eventually want access to other revenue-generating websites and be ready to pay for the data access.
If the purpose is to eventually lure customers to a broader Internet, fears of the so-called ‘walled garden’ of free content that could prevent or discourage subscribers from discovering or accessing the remaining Internet seem misplaced.
Also, Facebook does no longer decide who can use the Free Basics platform. The new avatar of Internet.org is now open to all service providers. What Facebook does is to offer a platform for content and app developers to opt in to the programme.
The inability to exit Free Basics, if true, could be a valid argument against allowing it. Fortunately, it is neither difficult nor expensive for subscribers to opt out of the package or move to an entirely different operator. Most service areas offer a rich choice of seven to 11 mobile operators, other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as well as access technologies. The potential for abuse in the market for Internet access is ironically lower in India than in developed countries, where choice is typically, much less.
This does not mean India must lower its guard against potential abuse by rogue players seeking to maximise profits and control through monopolies. However, it cannot ignore that barely 20% of its population can access the Internet and an even tinier fraction does it for more than an hour per week. Correcting this will need much more flexibility and innovation.
Programmes like Free Basics offer a constructive approach to solving a complex and urgent problem. It makes sense to support such services unless there is evidence of tangible harm.
(Mahesh Uppal is a consultant on regulatory issues in telecom and the Internet. The views expressed are personal)