Deep Insights Into Facebook’s Free Basics: Boon Or Bane?

Lately, the Internet was abuzz with supports and criticism alike for a certain Facebook initiative. Free Basics, which was earlier referred to as Internet.org, has been doing the rounds of the web for quite some time now, and the interest generated is pretty huge.

Of course, the trinity comprising of the terms free internet, net neutrality and Facebook’s Internet.org have always been the subject of (often harsh) criticism in the country. There’s a somewhat unclear version of what is exactly happening, and while the dust might have settled on Free Basics in India for now, the status of the execution of the plan is still in a limbo within the country.

So in this article, I do a post mortem of sorts. I try and play the role of a moderator in the heated debate that brought in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Facebook and various carriers and startups into a full-fledged fray. I discuss what Free Basics stands for, the economic impact of Internet.org and what the repercussions are if Free Basics is implemented.

BACK TO THE ABCs: NET NEUTRALITY

The onus of the entire debacle is Net Neutrality, and to understand Free Basics it is imperative to gain a perspective on Net Neutrality.

So, in one sentence: Net neutrality implies unbiased access to the internet from anywhere, anytime, without any carrier discrimination.

FREE BASICS IS…?

… Another name for Internet.org. Facebook’s initiative to provide free (the word is followed by an asterisk of sorts in this context) internet to developing nations was renamed from Internet.org to Free Basics back in September, ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Facebook HQ actually.

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Free Basics is Facebook’s way of enabling internet access to people in developing countries such as India and Indonesia, over continents such as Asia, Africa and Latin America (according to the description on the official site). It is a platform for developers to submit their services which might be accessed (for free) by people supporting Free Basics (over specific carriers).

READING THE FINE PRINT

Of course, Free Basics does sound to be very appealing, doesn’t it? The prospect of access to education, information and communication services over the Internet, and that too for free, it should be welcomed with open arms, right?

Here’s where the fine print comes into play.

Carriers will have to register for the Free Basics program.

Again, how does this concern the movement in general? It doesn’t, honestly. However, it does concern Net Neutrality, and is therefore a reason for argument.

Say I opt for Carrier A, and I can avail internet services on my phone for a specific monthly amount. If somebody else, who uses Carrier B, avails the same services for free, it will be unfair to me. And that is the underlying crux of the entire uproar over Free Internet.

THE CATCH

Besides the obvious drawback of unfair internet access plans, there’s actually another catch regarding a free internet plan by Facebook. And if proven correct, it might actually be a far more nefarious outcome.

In March 2015, an apparent revelation was made regarding the US-EU Safe Harbor Framework – a framework which protects personal data. The revelation – made by the European Commission’s attorney Bernhard Schima to the Court of Justice of the European Union – says that the US-EU Safe Harbor Framework doesn’t work.

Long story short, the framework was designed to be hijacked by the NSA and its British counterpart – the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).

This revelation was actually along the lines of Edward Snowden’s earlier revelation stating that NSA’s PRISM program provides access to consumer data to a lot of US Tech Companies and Social Media Services, including Facebook.

All in all, the breach in the framework would suggest two things:

1. Facebook can access the personal data of the users.

2. Any Facebook initiative might have an iota of possibility of compromising on personal data of users.

Again, nothing, and I repeat NOTHING, has been proven in this regard so far. These are merely speculations and claims, but if they do turn out to be true, they can cause quite a stir.

THE SITUATION FOR FACEBOOK

Coming back to the main topic at hand, Free Basics was in a way Facebook’s attempt to back Internet.org ahead of a public hearing on net neutrality, which is scheduled to occur next month in the country.

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In fact, Facebook has actually been encouraging people to support the campaign and write a mail to TRAI. This wouldn’t be the first time Facebook is lobbying for support, as the recent ‘Digital India’ filters on profile photos and notifications for Internet.org would prove, besides the more recent billboards and hoardings in busy areas in the country.

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The uproar over certain users getting access to services – mainly Facebook – for free, along with the constant deadlock over the issues of net neutrality in the country, have forced Facebook to take a defensive stance. Moreover, with TRAI vehemently stating that services such as Internet.org (and the recent Free Basics) which act like gatekeepers should be actively discouraged, things are looking tough for Facebook’s free internet initiatives.

BACKLASH FOR FREE BASICS

Free Basics has met its fair share of backlashes ever since its announcement. Leading the protest is the number of signatures on the TRAI website, and TRAI’s consequent stand in this debate – opposing Facebook. So much so, that upon a request from TRAI, Reliance Communications – one of the partners of the Free Basics initiative – agreed to temporarily halt Free Basics on its network.

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There has also been a wide range of criticism from startups – mainly Truecaller, Vserv and PayTM opposing the concept of Free Basics. Their argument is mainly towards the support of net neutrality and unbiased internet allocation.

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Facebook has responded to the outcry, and in a statement to Business Standard said that the organization was committed to “Free Basics and to working with Reliance and the relevant authorities to help people in India get connected.”

FACEBOOK’S STANCE: ETHICAL?

… Not exactly. When Facebook says ‘free content’, it does not mean all content, but only Facebook and a few other tiny services that have been exclusively chosen by Facebook. More than empowering the people, if Free Basics is carried out it would in a way cripple the people.

See here’s how it works. People would shift over to Free Basics thinking that they would be getting a more economical version of the internet. But they would be compromising on the openness and the quality of content that is offered to them otherwise.

Moreover, the statistics and wide range advertisements, along with the recent ten points released by Facebook, might point to more support for Free Basics, but in reality these points present an unclear version which might easily con the innocent Indian internet user. Do note, nothing in the world is free, especially when a company such as Facebook is marketing so much on ‘charity’.

The revenue that Facebook would incur through Free Basics would be in the form of advertisements (there will be ads, mark my words) and carrier partnership. If it was merely charity, Free Basics would also offer basic internet services such as Google, but it doesn’t.

According to expert Mahesh Murthy, Facebook’s Free Basics campaign is in a way a battle against Google in India, in which Indians will be the primary victims. Facebook’s strategy to keep their stock prices high and maintain a high level of profit in the country would have to include literally blocking people from using Google based services – which can be done through Free Basics.

So, is Facebook offering free internet? Yes, but only to specific sites and Facebook chosen content.

Will the users be able to access anything else besides this content? NO.

Is Facebook’s stance ethical? NO! A company hoping to establish itself as a charitable organization is doing so with unclear hoardings and distorted messages. They are not being clear in this matter, so they’re not being completely ethical.

BUT IS IT A GOOD IDEA?

Beyond the obvious tussle that encapsulates Facebook, free internet and net neutrality, let’s take a look at the bigger picture for now.

The number of smartphone users is estimated to increase to staggering numbers, with projections (not taking into consideration the effect of Facebook led initiatives) showing that a total of 2.16 billion people globally will be using a smartphone.

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Here’s another statistic from Statista, showing the global mobile data projection from 2014 to 2019. Again, this statistic does not take into consideration the effect of Facebook led initiatives. It is estimated that in 2016, a total of 6.8 exabytes will contribute to the global mobile data traffic.

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While all these numbers paint a picture – which is the popularity of smartphones and mobile data in the coming years, there is one key statistic which is unfortunate: the active mobile social media penetration in India is just 9% (Source: Statista) .

Initiatives which provide free, unfettered internet would actually support this trendline, and improve the data traffic. Free Basics is one such idea, but it does not provide unfettered internet, so it would actually fail.

Moreover, let’s face it, free internet has its share of added advantages – economically speaking. Money saved on the Internet and Internet related services would in turn imply money saved, and this would in turn mean a contribution to the GDP (studies made by economic expert Tim Worstall suggesting GDP contribution to the tune of 0.5%). The internet encourages a free flow of information, and more information would imply markets work more effectively and efficiently, therein working to the benefit of both the buyers and sellers, companies and consumers.

If you consider the benefits of free internet, you would see that a nation is being empowered to learn more and communicate more. And let’s admit it, it does sound good, doesn’t it?

THE NEED OF THE HOUR: AN UNDERSTANDING

The time has come for Facebook and other organizations lobbying for Free Internet to reach a suitable understanding with the Telecom Regulatory Authority and various network carriers. Net neutrality is the base on which the structure of free internet must be built in India, so all parties – be it the carriers or the people proposing the initiative – must adhere to it strongly.

I believe that initiatives such as Free Basics might actually serve some purpose. I also believe that Net Neutrality must never be compromised with.

What do I hope to see in the future? Free access to ALL beneficial services by ALL CONSUMERS, irrespective of which carrier they are on. The day this conclusion is arrived at, shall be the day India truly evolves into Digital India.