Earlier this month, India’s telecom regulator TRAI released a consultation paper about zero-rating -- a telecom industry jargon that stands for data that is subsidised for a user by an operator or a content maker. Who uses zero-rating? Free Basics, Facebook’s controversial programme to connect a billion Indians to the internet.
Free Basics is a Facebook app that gives users selective access to services like Facebook, communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information -- all without data charges.
TRAI had invited comments from stakeholders -- which includes users and mobile operators -- on the issue, the deadline for which is today, December 30. Understandably, Facebook is rattled. The world’s largest social network has pulled out all stops and is spending millions of dollars on full-page newspaper ads, hoardings and an SMS campaign. Facebook vice presidents are also taking to Twitter and Reddit to directly engage with net neutrality activists leading up to the deadline.
The Indian internet, of course, has been waging a war of its own in a last-minute rush to gather support and prevent Free Basics from becoming a reality, which, they say, splits the open internet into free and paid tiers.
Madhavan Narayanan, a Hindustan Times editor, describes it best:
Guerrillas fight from the trenches when masters buy up the benches— Madhavan Narayanan (@madversity) December 29, 2015
Here’s how Indians on the internet are opposing Free Basics.
1. About 50 IIT and IISc faculty members released a statement on December 29 highlighting the flaws in Facebook’s Free Basics programme. The statement released on Tuesday says that Free Basics is a lethal combination that will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet.
The statement, which you can read in its entirety here, points out three major flaws in Free Basics that include how misleading the word ‘free’ in Free Basics is, how it allows Facebook to snoop on the data of all the websites and services that participate, and how it allows Facebook to set the definition of what is a ‘basic’ internet service.
2. PayTM, one of the largest Indian startups, has sponsored SaveTheInternet.in ads on Tata Sky and Dish TV. PayTM founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma has been a vocal supporter of net neutrality.
3. Net Neutrality supporters are appearing on TV debates and attempting to take the debate mainstream. Venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy, who has challenged Facebook’s claims about Free Basics on his LinkedIn blog multiple times, appeared on ICNN-IBN’s 9 PM prime time broadcast India at 9. You can watch the entire debate below.
4. A group of nine Indian startup founders including Deepinder Goyal of Zomato, Vishal Gondal of GOQii, Faisal Farooqui of Mouthshut, and Sachin Bhatia of Truly Madly, have written a joint letter to the TRAI R S Sharma, requesting the regulator to “to issue clear regulations preventing telecom providers or content providers from acting as gate-keepers”. According to net neutrality activists, startups would be severely impacted if zero-rated programmes like Free Basics are allowed in India since zero-rating doesn’t create a level-playing field.
5. An enthusiastic community of net neutrality supporters on Reddit has created its own versions of Facebook’s full-page newspapers ads for Free Basics. Check them out below.