After facing backlash over its Free Basics platform under the Internet.org initiative, which aims to provide internet connectivity for the unlinked parts of the world especially in areas across Asian, African and Latin American regions, social networking site Facebook has finally written a blog post explaining their stand on allegations made by parties on its platform disregarding net neutrality.
The blog post comes days ahead of India’s telecom watchdog - Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) - announcing its stand on the recently released consultation paper on differential pricing. The watchdog had released a second consultation paper which focuses specifically on differential pricing for data, which is exactly what it sounds like — charging customers different prices for access to different websites and services.
Reportedly, Facebook has also stepped up its “Save Free Basics” campaign on its site and has put up commercial hoardings in Mumbai and Delhi just days before the telecom watchdog is due to announce its stand on net neutrality and differential pricing. The watchdog is waiting to hear from industry leaders and stakeholders before it takes a stand on differential pricing. Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) also held a meeting on Wednesday to decide on the response it is supposed to send to the watchdog.
In the blog post, Facebook highlights three models which Free Basics opposers have put up to cite examples of providing free internet against its own platform and says that these platforms might not be effective in scaling up operations to provide free and good quality Internet.
The services hinted are -- Aircel trying to provide internet at 2G speeds across India for free, Mozilla’s two-fold solution for an equal rating system and Gigato’s toll free internet solution.
Mozilla’s two-fold equal rating system on one hand implies that companies paying for the services get a “brought to you by” attribution, helping them ‘bring brand value and network effects to companies paying for equal rating’ and on the other hand asks to put advertisements in order for users to access other sites.
Mozilla is already experimenting on the first model with telecom operator Orange in multiple African and West Asian markets where users purchasing a $40 Klif phone receive unlimited talk, text, and 500 MB of data a month for six months. For the second model, the web giant tied up with Grameenphone in Bangladesh, where users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.
In Mavin-owned Gigato’s solution, the platform will allows mobile app developers to pay for the data that their users consume. “Think of this as toll-free data. We have today, the concept of toll-free numbers right? All these 1-800 numbers which if you call you do not incur the call charges. So our concept is very similar, except that the app on your smartphone is toll-free. So you can use it without paying for any data charges,” Shailesh Nalawadi, CEO of Mavin, was quoted as saying to Digit India.
“To bring a billion people online we need a variety of models. However, we also need to be practical and make sure programs are deployed in a fair and transparent way. Two of the services mentioned haven’t even rolled out yet so it’s too early to call them successful,” it wrote on the post adding that the third (Gigato) requires applications to pay to be featured, which should be a huge concern for net neutrality activists and is potentially damaging to start-ups who can’t afford to be part of the program.
In addition, it also criticised Firefox’s model of advertisements saying ad supported models where users watch ads as a gate to online content impose a barrier – the form of ads – on new users. “Giving away free megabytes only helps existing internet users, as opposed to the unconnected. It also means users on low-bandwidth phones could burn through their data very quickly,” it wrote.
It also pointed out that sponsored data, where the advertiser is paying the operator for the data that is used by the consumer, creates an unequal paying field.
In comparison, Free Basics is working to bring people online – more than 15 million people who were previously unconnected are now using the internet because of our connectivity efforts. Free Basics is open to any developer and we publish clear, simple, objective tech specifications. Free Basics helps overcome one of the biggest barriers to connectivity – understanding and awareness – by showing people the value of the internet with free services. In India, 40% of people who come online through Free Basics are paying for data and accessing the full internet within the first 30 days.
Most of this is just a hogwash and the real war is of relinquishing control
Most of the stuff put out on the blog post is old stuff in a new bottle, say experts. “The real war is Facebook losing more and more control over its product. TRAI’s second paper looks to ensure a more regulated and tonned down Free Basics and doesn’t want to ban it,” Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru-based research body Cente for Internet and Society (CIS), said.
He added that Facebook is not ready to relinquish control without a fight but the telecom watchdog believes that a zero-rated plan coupled with an equal-rated plan will work better. “The guidelines or recommendations that come out in a matter of days will make it mandatory for Facebook to follow net neutral rules,” Abraham said.
The executive director also pointed out that Facebook was forced to change the name from Internet.org to Free Basics. “Facebook had to make these changes due to regulations and the negotiations of altering some things in the service is still not over. We will have to wait and see what TRAI comes out with,” he said.
Even, the company itself in the blog has admitted to changing the name after it was criticised. “We have always told the truth about this program and listened to the initial criticism and changed the name from Internet.org to Free Basics, which we heard the community appreciate,” it wrote on the blog.
Father of the internet against Free basics
In a report published in the Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Internet, says that consumers should “just say no” to initiatives such as Facebook’s Free Basics (formerly known as Internet.org) because programs like that are not the full internet.
Berners-Lee was speaking at the Web We Want Festival in London’s Southbank. According to the Guardian, the Web We Want campaign promotes five key principles for the future of the web: Freedom of expression online and offline, affordable internet access, protection of user data and privacy, a decentralised internet infrastructure, and net neutrality.
Speaking about net neutrality in particular, Berners-Lee said: “I tend to say ‘just say no’” when it comes to compromising on it.
“In the particular case of somebody who’s offering … something which is branded internet, it’s not internet, then you just say no. No it isn’t free, no it isn’t in the public domain, there are other ways of reducing the price of internet connectivity and giving something … [only] giving people data connectivity to part of the network deliberately, I think is a step backwards.”
Free Basics is a initiative by Facebook that aims to bring the “next billion people online by providing them free access to a limited section of the internet. Critics have argued that this splits the open internet into free and paid tiers and goes against the concept of net neutrality, which says that all data on the internet should be treated equally.
AIB jumps in
As Facebook tried to take advantage of users who have less than adequate knowledge about the issue, players like AIB also joined the battle to keep the net neutral in India. “There are new villains in this story. Earlier, it was the telecom operators who wanted the right to charge you more for services like WhatsApp, Hike or Skype. Now we have global corporations who don’t mind such discrimination as long as their services are available cheaper or free,” wrote SaveTheInternet.in in email shot off by it to internet users.
“Facebook in particular has spent crores on advertising how they will provide free Internet to everyone in India, except it is restricted to websites that they allow in their app. If they’re allowed to do this, others will do it too. Airtel Zero is a similar scheme,” it added.
TRAI temporary ban on Free Basics
TRAI has already asked Reliance Communications to temporarily stop Facebook’s Free Basics service, just weeks before it announces a policy on net neutrality in India based on industry feedback of a recently-published consultation paper.
A senior official in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) said Reliance Communications has submitted a compliance report saying that the service has been stopped after an order from the watchdog, a report in the Times of India said.
Reliance Communications is Facebook’s only telecom partner in India that offers a set of basic internet services free to its subscribers under the platform. But the controversial initiative has been criticised by experts, who say it violates net neutrality by splitting the internet into free and paid tiers.
The move from the watchdog can only be seen as a safety measure before net neutrality rules in the country get a direction before being framed.
However, even after the submission of the compliance report Reliance Communications seems to have kept the Free Basics platform live. The Free Basics platform is available to subscribers of the telecom company when they log into the website, leaving a question mark over the compliance to the regulator’s order.
Competition takes a jibe
If all regulatory pressures were not enough, Microsoft has also taken a jibe at Free Basics. “[Free Basics] doesn’t solve the problem of connectivity,” an NDTV Gadgets report quoted Microsoft India Chairman Bhaskar Pramanik as saying. Pramanik is said to be referring to the fact that you need to be a Reliance Communications customer within cellular coverage to benefit from the project in India.
“Free Basics is more of availability of Internet through traditional means - somebody still has to provide connectivity otherwise you don’t get anything,” he explained.