Home / Opinion / Free speech and digital inclusion

Defending the act of blackening the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni over the book launch of former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut implied that spilling ink, as “we" had done, was much better than spilling blood, as “they" are doing.

The incident was thus portrayed as a battle of principles where the principle of national pride acquires priority over the ideal of free speech. Rueing for a moment a situation when people believe that acts of intimidation are necessary to assert national pride, let us turn to what seems to be a very different debate—Net neutrality versus digital inclusion. I will show that the fundamental premise of Facebook’s Free Basics initiative—that the promise of universal access to the Internet is sufficient to override concerns of Net neutrality advocates—is specious, and that the Net neutrality debate has important implications for free speech, the norm ostensibly sacrificed for national honour by the Sena.

Net neutrality is an ideological position which holds that in order to facilitate innovation, the Internet service provider should act as a ‘dumb pipe’ and not influence the interaction between the content or application developer (also known as the over-the-top player or the OTT) and the end user—except by providing connectivity. The end user and not the OTT should pay for the connectivity so that the barriers to entry for new OTTs remain low. Discriminatory pricing of any kind, especially which distinguishes between similar kinds of content, is frowned upon.

Internet.org and its platform Free Basics allow a small set of OTTs to pay a few Internet service providers in order to obviate the need for end users to pay for Internet service. By restricting the platform to a subset of OTTs who have the ability to pay the Internet service provider, the platform creates an unequal playing field between members and non-members. It is possible that incumbents will be able to lock in end users and shut out other OTTs, who could create inclusive social enterprises if given the chance. The failure of even a behemoth like Google Plus to succeed in the face of Facebook’s massive user base is an indication of the power of “network effects".

However, the claim of supporters of Free Basics is that by taking the financial burden off end users who do not have the ability to pay and placing it on OTTs who do, the initiative neatly sidesteps the challenge of the affordability of digital access.

Or does it?

The financial challenges of accessing the excluded are almost co-terminus with the challenges of accessing rural areas. Urban Internet penetration is close to 50%, while rural Internet penetration is 12%. Only 6.7% of the rural users, i.e. less than 1% of the rural population, are “active Internet users", i.e. those who access the Internet more than once a month.

The principal commercial challenges to accessing rural areas relate to the paucity of power to run mobile networks, the cost of laying optic fibre and the low income density (gross domestic product per sq. km) of rural areas.

The National Optic Fibre Network aims to lay fibre to all gram panchayats at an outlay of 72,778 crore. A further amount would need to be spent on last-mile connectivity in a terrain characterized by hills, rivers and far-flung habitations.

What is the size of the dent that Free Basics can make on this problem? One is not aware of the commercial terms of the agreement between Internet.org and its partner Internet service providers, but one suspects the contribution to be minuscule.

On the other hand, if the government of India rolls out its optic fibre network, the gain to the members of Free Basics from government-funded connectivity, demand-generating e-governance applications and its model of preferential access would be immense. When there is such great asymmetry of gains between the government and private players, one must ignore the ideological posturing and not be afraid to look the gift horse in the mouth.

A comprehensive plan for digital inclusion would distinguish between high-speed digital access at a minimal price in shared service centres and much lower speed and high-priced service to mobile phones. A comprehensive view would sense that the enormous challenge of digital inclusion is almost unrelated to the actual possibilities of Internet.org.

The ideal of Net neutrality is driven by the philosophy of the freedom to innovate. As new media flocks to the Internet, this also implies the freedom of speech. Just as we recognize that the attack of the Sena on individual liberties is driven only by its desperate need to stay relevant, we should discern that violation of Net neutrality for the piffling gains promised by Free Basics constitutes an unacceptable violation of these freedoms.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi is wooed by Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, the prime mover of Internet.org, he may like to note that, under false pretexts, he is being asked to move closer to opponents of democratic rights, an issue on which his position remains unclear.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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