How Facebook made a clinching argument against Free Basics

What was that pitch about ‘digital equality’?

ByVinay Aravind
How Facebook made a clinching argument against Free Basics
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I logged into Facebook late last week to be greeted by a persistent notification to the effect that “X, Y and 18 other friends sent a message to TRAI to support digital equality. You can too.” What a wonderful idea! Obviously I want digital equality. I am usually a great fan of equality, whether analogue or digital.

Clicking on it took me to a pre-filled “e-mail” that I could send to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India supporting Facebook’s Free Basics scheme (the artiste formerly known as Internet.org), in which Facebook ties up with a carrier (in this case Reliance) to provide free access to limited versions of certain Facebook-curated websites (including Facebook itself) to the subscribers of that carrier who cannot afford to pay for a data plan.

To those without much background about Internet.org, net neutrality, and the controversy around it, Facebook did an excellent job, presenting itself as a valiant crusader for “digital equality” — a nice turn of phrase that has all the semantic virtue of “net neutrality” and is therefore well-equipped to go head-to-head against it.

Even to those who have some prior knowledge of the issue, the skilful phrasing of the appeal, and the whole “click this button to save the world” format was so compelling that a fair few clicked on it without really understanding what it meant, and had to jump through hoops to “un-sign” the petition.

Facebook also goes on to warn everyone of “a small, vocal group of critics” trying to derail this campaign on the grounds of “net neutrality”.

Far from what Facebook would have everyone believe, this is not a simple matter of one virtuous, crusading corporation and a bunch of villainous/misguided activists. Facebook’s position is that “some access is better than no access”, and that the Facebook-curated list of websites that can be accessed under Free Basics will be an introduction to the internet for the users who can’t afford to pay for data, and that they will eventually graduate to using all of the internet, when they can afford to do so.

Facebook’s critics say that this violates net-neutrality, a long-cherished principle of internet governance, which states that an internet service provider (such as Reliance) should not discriminate in serving up different websites to a consumer, by either blocking access to certain websites, or serving up a few sites faster than others.

While there is definite merit in the “some access is better than no access argument”, Free Basics is the least simple, least transparent and least equitable way of going about providing “some access”. For contrast, one need only look at Grameenphone in Bangladesh, where Telenor and Mozilla have tied up to offer a low-cost smartphone and connection which permit its users 20MB of free, unrestricted access per day. The user can decide how to use that limited data.

To achieve the same ends, Facebook has a curated list of sites that have data-light versions that need to conform to specific standards, and at the end of the day have to meet the approval of Facebook. Some access is better than no access, but some forms of “some access” are better than others.

Facebook’s method of providing “some access” privileges Facebook and whomever it approves of, and allows it to advance its core business objective, which is to be able to co-opt, monitor and serve up the next billion people, to advertisers. I have no beef with Facebook pursuing that objective, but to then go on and frame their initiative as an altruistic movement to connect the unconnected, particularly when other methods to achieve the same objective without violating net-neutrality are available, is disingenuous at best.

Facebook posits that the million plus people who, of their own accord, emailed TRAI to protest Internet.org are privileged folks, fighting to deprive the unconnected of having some form of connectivity. Once again, this is a convenient misrepresentation of the situation. The people writing in to protest against Internet.org are not protesting zero rating (as the provision of “some access” for free is popularly described) per se, or the idea that those who cannot afford to pay for data should have some free data. Those writing in are protesting the specific aspects of Internet.org/Free Basics that are dangerous in the long run, namely the violation of net-neutrality, the lack of security and privacy for a user population that might not immediately be savvy enough to make choices in that regard, and the very real possibility that for those who cannot afford to pay for data, Facebook and its approved list of sites, will appear to be all of the internet.

Facebook could respond to its detractors by restructuring Free Basics to be completely transparent, non-discriminatory, and secure, and by providing upfront information about privacy and its implications to its subscribers. Even in this case, it would be a huge win for its business objectives, because an overwhelmingly large percentage of people who get online, get on Facebook (and tend to pick cat videos over privacy).

Instead it has chosen to co-opt its 125 million userbase in India, by what can only be described as sleight-of-hand, to bombard TRAI with e-mails to counter those that TRAI received through savetheinternet.in, run by the activists they decry. If you needed one clinching reason why a Facebook-controlled Free Basics is dangerous, this specific act of theirs offers it clearly. Facebook has immense clout and resources and is not afraid to use it, through means fair or foul, to advance its interests. This is not the behaviour of a responsible or fair-minded corporation, and a valuable principle like net neutrality should not be compromised to serve the interests of a corporation that not only seeks to control a large chunk of the internet, but is also unafraid to use that control to mislead people and smother criticism.

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