New Delhi: There is a rather vociferous debate in India around the interpretation of net-neutrality. And it all started after popular social networking company Facebook rolled out a massive campaign across media, urging people to support its Free Basics platform. The company’s marketing spiel included full page advertisements in almost all major national and regional newspapers in India, as well as prompts on Facebook asking users to sign in support.

Formerly known as Internet.org, Free Basics “provides free access to basic internet services to a billion people all over the world". In other words, Free Basics is positioned as an app for the developing countries and allows people, who may otherwise find a typical 2G/3G/4G data plan a tad too expensive, to access some Internet services at no cost—news, weather, travel and even health, education and public service information. But after all the outrage on social media, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has put Free Basics on hold. The next step will be announced in January 2016.

At present, content available on Facebook’s Free Basics platform includes Wikipedia, AccuWeather and Supersport, among other region-specific health and education services. If one doesn’t pay attention to the finer details, it is easy to brush this off as a half-baked Internet platform. Designed to work on even the most basic phones, Free Basics has a set of guidelines for content providers to adhere to, before their content can be made available on this low-bandwidth platform. Which is why it is a bit hard to understand the logic when critics such as SaveTheInternet forum suggest, “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." After all, who doesn’t have technical guidelines and terms and conditions for content on their platform? Google does, Apple does, Microsoft does, and the list goes on.

“We wouldn’t reject apps at their discretion and would not launch with operators if rejecting apps was a condition of their participation. We’d also be happy to have Twitter, Google+, etc on the platform," said Chris Daniels, vice-president, Internet.Org, Facebook, during an ask-me-anything (AMA) session on Reddit. Based on Facebook’s experience in African and South American countries, he adds, “Within a month, 50% of people who started their journey with Free Basics are paying for the entire Internet. Only single digit percentages of people are only on Free Basics after that month." Read more

There is no doubt that such a platform, because of its uniqueness, will draw divided opinion. And it most certainly is a clever and effective marketing strategy, keeping in mind Daniel’s own admission that people quickly upgrade from Free Basics to full-access Internet plans.

Free Basics needs to work

According to Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) numbers, India had 354 million Internet users as of June 2015, of which 60% are accessing Internet services through their mobile phones. But, while this user base may look good on paper, the reality is that this accounts for just 27% penetration (China has 51% and US clocks 87%). In other words, large sections of the population are still not connected to the Internet. There are many factors for this, with the cost of Internet access being one big stumbling block. Facebook wants to take that away with Free Basics.

“Free Basics is open to any carrier. Any mobile operator can join us in connecting India," says Facebook, while adding, “we do not charge anyone anything for Free Basics. Period." Critics such as SaveTheInternet forum suggest, “Facebook doesn’t pay for Free Basics, telecom operators do. Where do they make money from? From users who pay." But what is wrong with that, if it is actually getting more people connected? After all, doesn’t the government subsidise a lot of things in India—where does that money come from? The taxpayers, of course. By this logic, do we stop paying taxes because someone else is benefiting from LPG subsidies? Also, for example, Airtel has specific pre-paid recharge plans that offer unlimited access to Wynk Movies and Music streaming services. Should the likes of Gaana and Saavn not cry foul?

There is a massive chasm between people in big cities who access Internet on their phones, and people in rural areas who don’t. IAMAI numbers prove that. SaveTheInternet completely ignores the penetration numbers, and just looks at the burgeoning user base, no matter how skewed that might be, “We’ve added 100 million users in 2015." The loud criticism about Facebook is that they are restricting access to full Internet and forcing Facebook’s own services down new users’ throats. The point is—Free Basics isn’t meant for you and me. It is meant for those who are yet to get the first taste of the connected world, and they wouldn’t care if they have forced access to Facebook or not.

SaveTheInternet also suggests, “Facebook gets access to all the usage data and usage patterns of all the sites on Free Basics. No website which wants to compete with Facebook will partner with them because it will have to give them user data." While that is certainly true, it is hard to think of any web-based service these days that doesn’t track usage? Your Android phone does. Your Windows laptop does.

Another argument goes, “Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t have ads, but does not say that it will never have ads on Free Basics." That’s way too much to expect from corporate entity. We pay for subscribing to paid channels on cable and DTH—they still have advertisements. HBO started off in India many years ago as an advert-free channel, but had to change its tune after some time. Market forces decide that, eventually.

The premise of Free Basics is the disruptive model, that is perhaps a good way of increasing Internet penetration in a country where the government and state-funded as well as private telecom service providers are struggling to get a similar result. If it can spread awareness, knowledge, help with access to medicine and education, while bringing faster connectivity and perhaps limited access to those who are currently outside the connected demographic, it is worth a shot. A 2010 World Bank/IFC report suggests that for every 10 percentage point increase in high-speed Internet connections, there is a corresponding increase of 1.3 percentage point in economic growth. Read more. Everyone agrees poverty is a bad thing; if Internet penetration can help, why not?

If conventional measures could have achieved the same results, why haven’t they? It clearly is time to try something out of left field.

Facebook’s gain is our gain

Yes, Facebook wants to earn a profit. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are not doing this for philanthropy alone, but there is a long-term profit motive. And there surely isn’t anything wrong with that.

It is also being said that with Facebook in control of the content, it could give top billing to one source which may make it difficult for the others to break through and be available to consumers. Well, that is just something that will stand the test of time. Google can lock everything on your Android phone tomorrow and force you to only use their apps—they can, but they haven’t. Nothing tells us Facebook will do otherwise.

The entire debate has taken a moral tone when it should be about who benefits and how. In this case, Facebook is benefiting, and so are deprived users who don’t yet know what the world wide web is. If Free Basics is able to connect even 1% of them with the promise of better education and eventually better job prospects, just think of the boost for the economy.

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