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Is Facebook trying to be India’s social OS?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg charmed India last week, seeming to do and say all the right things.

columns Updated: Dec 10, 2015 11:59 IST
N Madhavan
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg during an interaction with IIT students at Delhi.
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg during an interaction with IIT students at Delhi. (PTI Photo)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg charmed India last week, seeming to do and say all the right things. He posed in front of the Taj Mahal, ran in front of India Gate and gave a bright, future-friendly speech in front of India’s brightest kids at the IIT Delhi, with a nuanced explanation on how his Free Basics programme (a rebranding of the Internet.org initiative) essentially is not against the principle of Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality, the policy or principle which says that content and services over the Internet must be separate from connectivity, is an exalted one that in Zuckerberg’s phrase must be harmonised with the quest to bridge the Digital Divide, so that poor can access the Internet on Zero Rating methods that will enable free data access linked to specific services, be they noble tasks that help e-governance, or connecting with friends on Facebook.

In plain English, Zuckerberg implies Internet service providers — mostly telecom service companies — responsible for connectivity should be allowed to tie up with companies such as Facebook to provide free access to unconnected, curious millions. Shorn of all its hairsplitting, this is about the future of content and services on the Internet. The question is: Whose future? The intertwined future of Facebook, telcos and the digitally illiterate masses? Is there someone else?

One key issue is about whether Facebook can gain unfair advantage through an early lead into the hearts and minds of those that get its Free Basics at the cost of those who produce or can produce a variety of content and services that are, may or can possibly compete with Facebook.

Is Facebook trying to become the “social OS” that brings back memories of Microsoft being the deskstop OS monopolist in the personal computer revoluation through its DOS and Windows platforms?

This is not about the present. This is about the emerging future. This is not about Facebook as an app but Facebook as a potential, pervasive platform. This is not about the Digital Divide alone but also about fair competition in content and services.

In terms of competition law, can the embrace of two giants — such as a telecom service company and a social network — amount to “collusion” that is anti-competitive? Is Free Basics similar to the case in the European Union where bundling of the Internet Explorer as a browser with Microsoft’s Windows OS led to claims of unfair competition?

These questions are best examined not by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India alone, but also by the Competition Commission of India. Trai is only about telcos and broadcasters. Content and services have a much wider scope. The CCI needs to step into the debate on Net Neutrality in India.