Facebook’s Free Basics has reignited the debate of Net Neutrality on social media.
Last time it was in April 2015, when news about Flipkart signing up with Airtel’s controversial service, Airtel Zero came out in open.
This IOS article explained what Net Neutrality is and why services that go against it will harm the start-up ecosystem – ‘In simple words, net neutrality means letting Internet be an equal field for everyone like it has always been. It states that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all traffic on their networks equally. No website should be given superior treatment and that users should be given access to all websites at the same speed & cost are the main objectives of this concept. Violation of this principle will result in small players/startups dying gradually as big companies will muscle their way up.’
The campaign for Net Neutrality has been going on from months where activists are fighting fiercely to protect the Internet, yet companies are not giving up. Facebook’s Free Basics and partnership with Reliance Communications is one such prime example.
What is Facebook’s Free Basics?
Facebook’s Free Basics claims that the service will provide free, basic Internet to poor rural Internet users.
While explaining ‘Free Basics’, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Over the last year Facebook has worked with mobile operators, app developers and civil society to overcome these barriers in India and more than 30 other countries. We launched Free Basics, a set of basic internet services for things like education, healthcare, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data.”
But others aren’t falling for such claims. People realised that Facebook merely repackaged ‘Internet.org’ as Free Basics and is misleading people once again through aggressive marketing tactics.
As soon as Free Basics promotional campaign picked up, activists got into action and urged people to sign Net Neutrality petition and reject the service. And it worked as TRAI has temporarily banned it.
“As directed by TRAI, the commercial launch of Free Basics has been kept in abeyance, till they consider all details and convey a specific approval,” said a Reliance spokesperson
Zuckerberg slammed his critics and said, “Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims – even if that means leaving behind a billion people. Instead of recognizing the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole internet, they continue to claim – falsely – that this will make the internet more like a walled garden. Instead of welcoming Free Basics as an open platform that will partner with any telco, and allows any developer to offer services to people for free, they claim – falsely – that this will give people less choice. Instead of recognizing that Free Basics fully respects net neutrality, they claim – falsely – the exact opposite.”
So who is right – Zuckerberg or Net Neutrality activists?
The latter. Here’s why:
SaveTheInternet.in in its blog-post ‘What Facebook won’t tell you about FreeBasics’ wrote, “Free Basics isn’t about bringing people online. It’s about keeping Facebook and its partners free, while everything else remains paid. Users who pay for Internet access can still access Free Basics for free, giving Facebook and its partners an advantage. Free Basics is a violation of Net Neutrality.”
Another important point they raised was,
“Free Basics is not an open platform. Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them. They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permission-less innovation’ in the US.”
Faculty members of IITs and IISc also questioned how and why a private company like Facebook gets to decide what ‘basic’ internet service is, control costs & content and get access to very personal user information.
Indian ecommerce leaders Flipkart, and Paytm support Net Neutrality
In April, Flipkart faced a lot of flak for Airtel Zero Deal.
More so after founder Sachin Bansal tweeted, “When foreign companies do it in India – Innovation. Indians do it – Violation. #NetNeutralityDiscrimination?”
But the marketplace seemed to have learned its lesson this time around.
Without commenting directly on Free Basics, the company released a statement, “Absence of net neutrality will affect web innovations and create digital inequality in India. We believe that the spirit of net neutrality should apply equally to all companies in India.”
According to this TOI report, Mark Zuckerberg is now personally reaching out to companies to discuss the controversial service. Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma too was contacted by Zuckerberg for a discussion but he is still against Facebook’s service and is all for net neutrality.
Vijay Shekhar Sharma said, “This will split the internet and block access, which basically violates the principle of net neutrality.”
Bottom line is every Indian, irrespective of their class, social status, financial capacity, age and gender should have access to complete and open Internet. Not given to selective sites dictated by a private company’s service like Free Basics, which will create a digital divide by making the Internet restricted, instead of keeping it free and open to everyone.