Controversy seems to dog Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook despite its best efforts.
As if facing a strong opposition to his Free Basics programme from hardline Net Neutrality activists was not loud enough, it has got a rap on the knuckles from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the very authority that it aims to please in order to take forward its stated mission to bring the internet to digitally poor masses. You could call this a yellow card by the referee in an Internet football match.
The regulator has written a five-page letter to Facebook, virtually accusing it of suppressing Trai’s own questions on differential pricing of various apps or services on the internet as it urged millions of users to mail a response in support of Free Basics to the regulator. Trai says its full text was not offered to users.
Free Basics rests on a technology platform shared by telecom operators and app developers under Facebook’s terms although the company says its platform is optional and does not exclude anyone. In essence, Facebook offers the technological means for free access to some basic apps to entry-level internet users.
But its billionaire CEO must realise that in regulation, popularity is not a substitute for credibility, which must lie in hard arguments rather than petitions perceived to be ill-informed. A week ago, the World Bank challenged Facebook’s claim that Free Basics does not violate the principle of Net Neutrality that separates services over the internet from data plans. It called Free Basics the “anti-thesis of Net Neutrality and a distortion of markets.” Who knows, this might have provoked Trai’s letter.
The deeper business truth lies elsewhere. Data is being increasingly referred to as the “oil of the 21st Century”, as independent European think-tank Bruegel noted this month that online platforms including social networking sites and search engines get their economic value from personal data.
Facebook says Free Basics does not have ads, but does not rule them out in the future. In such a context, its high-spending blitzkrieg to canvas for something free is bound to raise eyebrows.