Why there’s nothing to like about Free Basics: A rebuttal to The Indian Express op-ed

Mark Zuckerberg is watching out for his interests. Internet users should watch out for theirs.

BySiddharthya Roy
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Why there’s nothing to like about Free Basics: A rebuttal to The Indian Express op-ed
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Within a span of two months, two op-eds promoting two very controversial projects, which will have a great impact on India’s Information Technology (IT) policy, have found space in The Indian Express.

The first one was authored by Nandan Nilekani and made an appeal against the Supreme Court’s interim judgement on Aadhaar. (I explain at length the problems with Mr Nilekani’s piece here.)

The latest one, authored by Bhaskar Chakravorti, makes a case for Facebook’s Internet.org, or Free Basics. Both pieces are strikingly similar in the way they argue for the two issues: Aadhaar and Free Basics.

For one, the two op-eds are absolutely evasive of the main questions their pet projects face from digital civil rights and pro-freedom activists. Privacy and data sharing with foreign governments in the case of Unique Identification Authority of India and Net Neutrality in the case of Facebook.

Chakravorti begins his article with a quote about Mark Zuckerberg’s personal love for India and ends on a mushy note about him posting a snap in front of the Taj Mahal and calling it a monument of love.

White people coming to India and doing the Taj Mahal photograph thing and calling it a monument of undying love is beyond cliché. It’s been done since before the Internet went public.

What ever happened to millennial innovation?

Why not try something new and different? Say, for example, post the tax receipts of Facebook India Online Services Private Limited from 2010 to 2014. What better way to profess love for India than paying her the taxes for the business done within her borders?

Unlike Mr Chakravorty, I am on Facebook, and I promise to like and share the post with the tax receipts even if I didn’t do it for the Taj snap.

The love-and-special-bond theatrics aside, the piece does not mention the real reasons for Facebook going for the hard sell in India.

Problem of profit

India is not a very profitable market for Facebook. Despite being the second-largest subscriber base in the world (7.8 crore), India contributes very little in terms of profit for Facebook ($1.2 crore). As this article in Quartz summarises very well, Facebook makes less than 16 cents per user in India, whereas it makes $14 per user in the US.

Since per user profit is low in India, Facebook is trying to induct more users and, therefore, increase the gross figures.

Chakrovorti himself admits in paragraph six — “it is better to have the private sector invest in inclusion for core business reasons than for charity or CSR” — that Facebook is out to make money through Internet.org and we should let them. Agreed. We can’t possibly have a case against a private corporation trying to make money. But we can have one for dressing it up as charity and acting all morally high-up. And another for slandering activists. And then another for trying to put themselves before the Internet.

The Internet is a highly evolved, extremely complex and very vast agglomeration of technology, science and art, with multiple layers and innumerable branches both at the physical level of cables, wires, computers and satellites, and at the level of data and information. But fundamentally, it remains a mode of communication like other means. Just like using letters, using the phone, the radio and television and so on.

Now someone may set up a postal agency and monetise the sending of letters by issuing stamps. The phone company, the radio and TV stations have all built products on the back of the basic act of communicating.

But would it be acceptable to say that if the phone company doesn’t make enough money, we should alter the very ways in which people talk to others? Or if the TV company’s cash registers don’t ring enough, we should stop sharing entertainment and public information itself?

That is quite what the argument of making Facebook profitable through Internet.org is trying to achieve. Since the real Internet isn’t making them enough money in India, just go ahead and change the Internet itself.

The Internet wasn’t invented and built upon through the years to just make profit for corporations. It was made as a means of allowing humans across the globe (and now in space) to communicate with each other using their computers.

The Googles, the Yahoos, Twitters and Facebooks came later. Their profits exist because of the Internet. The Internet doesn’t exist to serve them.

The Internet is, till date, the greatest of technological achievements built through voluntary human collaboration. No one person or organisation built it. Yes, there were shining leaders, but millions of unknown people who made the hardware, who used the hardware, who logged on to chat rooms, who took pictures, recorded cat videos, wrote code, did business and what not, have built the Internet. Beyond countries and tax regimes, the Internet is owned by everyone who is on it.

A private company that came into existence five odd years ago has no business trying to say they are the Internet.

Second, if your profits aren’t coming, it’s because you don’t have a good business model. Facebook advertising programmes are an opaque process and nobody other than Facebook itself knows how they work or if they work at all.

It’s the same with Google and Twitter. Customers hardly have any real insight into what works and what doesn’t. They are forced to be there because (allegedly) everyone else is.

Chakravorti makes a mention of how mobile phones sell very well in India and expresses surprise that despite that, Internet doesn’t sell enough.

How about the simple explanation that mobile phone makers have actually made a product they can sell and buyers can use. Previous generation software giants like Microsoft, Sun and Adobe made products, sold them and made good money. Apple still does.

Note how despite becoming the largest store of online communication, Facebook actually makes no content of its own. Users both make and consume the text and images on the site and Facebook is trying to make money off it by playing gatekeeper on the content and big brother on the users. How far can that go? How much can you monetise a free blogging website?

That’s no real business model. That’s just gobbledygook for hooking investors and making money on the stock market. It’s bound to collapse once the fad is over.

And now that reality is hitting home, you rely on spying for governments, choking the market, participate in politics and hope to live on.

Their way our way

Chakravorti laments how India is not only unprofitable for Facebook, but for everyone who is trying to make money on the Internet. Despite being such a large population there are so few people on the Internet, he says, that India is not in the top 20 e-commerce consumers of the world.

Well sir, India is not in the top 20 consumers of e-commerce of the world because Indians are miles away from the bracket of top 20 when it comes to minimum wages, disposable income and other measures of earning.

In a country where access to tap water and toilets is one of the lowest in the world, where home loan interest rates are one of the highest, medical care one of the most unaffordable, clearly pizza in 30 minutes with a five per cent discount when ordered from a smartphone app ranks lower on people’s list of priorities.

Simply getting people on the Internet isn’t going to put money in their pockets with which to buy goods from Amazon or pay for ads on Facebook. They need better wages and better living standards to be able to do that. And since employing people and paying better wages to workers is hardly on any corporation’s agenda, I don’t see how that deadlock will ever be broken by the private sector.

Even if we accept that simply increasing Internet penetration is enough, saying that Internet.org will do it is incorrect. Facebook isn’t building any infrastructure to provide Internet to new areas. It is simply riding on the back of existing ISPs. So where is the question of the spread of Internet?

Lastly, if the gloves are off and Facebook says it has nothing but its own interests on its mind, we could say we have nothing but our interests in mind.

Mobile phone service providers looted us in the 90s and early 2000s — making us pay upwards of Rs 5 per minute, pay for roaming and also pay for incoming. Had that persisted, none but the most elite would have been able to afford Internet today.

Mostly because of government intervention but also partly because of competition, the price per MB per second has progressively gone down. This is positive competition. A race for the better.

What Internet.org will do is make it a race to the bottom. That thing Airtel tried along with Flipkart — charging more for how you use data and not how much of data you use — will set the standards. Others will follow suit and the entire dream of building an IT economy will collapse in no time.

Congratulations to Mr Zuckerberg for doing so well for himself. But there are thousands of young men and women across Bangalore, Pune, Gurgaon and other Indian cities who are slogging away at their start-up with dreams of making it equally big. India needs them more than it needs Zuckerberg and his Free Basics. And they, in turn, need an Internet which is fast, cheap and unrestricted.

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