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Home >Opinion >Internet.org or Facebook Free Basics: Do read the fine print

Mumbai: Is it better for the poor to access a bit of the Internet for free with a few strings attached rather than have no access to it at all?

On the face of it, most of us will find it hard to disagree with this proposition. After all, no one should ideally object to a move that is ostensibly working towards bridging the digital divide, a move that is also in line with what emerging countries like India that are sorely in need of such initiatives.

Yet, a seemingly altruistic initiative of connecting the world’s billions with a free basic services gateway to cyberspace by the world’s largest social networking site Facebook.com continues to be viewed with a lot of suspicion by Internet lobby groups more than two years since it was announced.

Most of the arguments against the initiative, such as violation of net neutrality principles, routing all such free traffic through Facebook and thus splintering the Internet and compromising security and privacy, remain unchanged even as Facebook is at pains to reiterate its commitment to net neutrality, security and privacy.

Are these advocacy groups being unreasonable? Or is Facebook couching an ambition for Internet-dominance as altruism?

While some of the views of advocacy groups might appear strident (and their tone, shrill), there can be no denying they have awakened many netizens to the pitfalls of a move that, at first blush, appears beneficial or, if nothing else, harmless.

There were clearly loopholes in Internet.org that needed to be plugged. How else does one explain Facebook opening up its Internet.org platform to developers in May to “easily create services that integrate with Internet.org, and a way to give people more choice and control over the services they access", and “increasing its commitment to security and privacy" by, in September “adding support for HTTPS services on the web version as well."

Had everything been fine, would Facebook have felt the need to do so? Besides, the company has a history of tweaking its privacy policies only when its users howl in protest.

Internet.org was started as a partnership between Facebook and six other companies—Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm. The aim was to connect two-thirds of the world that is not online because “...devices are too expensive, service plans are too expensive, mobile networks are few and far between, or content isn’t available in the local language...".

All was well at first, and founder and chief executive of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to India in September 2014 too received good press, especially his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But in early April, thousands of Internet users and activists in India took telcos to task online, protesting the violation of net neutrality principles. They were reacting to Bharti Airtel Ltd’s Zero plan and the 20 questions raised by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) in its 27 March consultation paper on a regulatory framework for so-called over-the-top (OTT) services.

Net neutrality principles dictate that Internet service providers (ISPs) should not discriminate on online data by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. And the zero-rating plan, if designed to favour an ISP’s own or its partner’s app or company, can place competing apps and companies at a disadvantage, be anti-competitive and violate Net neutrality principles.

Bowing to pressure from the uproar, India’s largest online retailer Flipkart Ltd on 14 March ended talks with Bharti Airtel to participate in the Airtel Zero plan. Airtel, too, issued a statement that very day, saying it “fully supports the concept of Net neutrality", and adding that it did not “block" or “throttle" or provide “any form of preferential access".

Facebook’s Internet.org came in the line of fire too. On 15 April, travel portal Cleartrip.com and media companies Times Group and NDTV logged out of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, even as Zuckerberg attempted to defend his position in sections of the media.

Now Facebook has a new name for its app and mobile website—Free Basics. On 24 September, Facebook said it is “...making this change to better distinguish the Internet.org initiative from the programs and services we’re providing, including Free Basics". In India, the company tied-up with Reliance Communications Ltd for the same on 15 February.

Still, while Facebook has tightened its security and privacy policies, critics are still labelling these as half measures. This continuing pressure might cajole Facebook into bettering its policies, which is a good thing.

But who are these users who are off the Internet grid in India, and whom companies like Facebook want online?

According to a 20 July report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and consultancy firm KPMG, with more than 300 million Internet users, India has the second-largest Internet user base in the world. But the Internet penetration at about 19% is low. According to the report, rural India is steadily moving “towards a more Internet-friendly and exploratory mindset".

As of December 2014, the active Internet user (AIU, which is defined as someone who is online at least once a month) base in rural India was 6.7% of the overall rural population of 905 million and accounted for 61 million users. Of this, about 4.4% used a mobile device to access the Internet—a figure that stood at a meagre 0.4% in 2012.

Facebook already has about 135 million Internet users in India (1.44 billion global users as on 31 March), most accessing Facebook on their mobiles. Whatsapp, which was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in February 2014, had 700 million global users as of March 2015, according to online statistics company Statista Inc. Of these, an estimated 10% users are from India. Facebook Messenger, too, has 600 million global users.

Facebook has good reason to aspire to become an Internet gateway for first-time users since Google’s search engine is already the biggest gateway to the Internet for most netizens.

But there are some credible alternatives to Internet.org that are emerging on the horizon. For instance, mCent, a service from Boston start-up Jana, makes it possible for any app developer to underwrite a user’s cost of downloading and using an app, according to a 6 May article in MIT Technology Review. Mozilla Foundation’s chairperson, Mitchell Baker, has another such alternative, according to a 7 May report in medianama.com, a website of Mixed Bag Media Pvt Ltd.

But do they have a chance against Facebook?

Facebook, with its public relations and marketing clout, will continue to argue that no user is being forced to use its service. It will also continue to underscore that Internet.org “gives people an onramp to the internet, and after using free basic services, they understand the value of the internet and then access the internet outside of Internet.org". There’s a host of other facts that Facebook presents.

Regardless, it’s important to recognise Facebook for what it is, a business organisation that would like to corner as many online users as possible and eventually benefit from contextual ads placed on its properties. Period.

While Internet.org and Free Basics have no such advertising-driven model as yet, Facebook will do well to also listen to dissenting voices and address those concerns if it wants to assure netizens that it is not trying to short-shift uninformed first-time users.

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