Neither free nor basic4 min read
In an all-guns-blazing campaign by Facebook, the first thing to appear on one’s timeline was a petition aiming to connect India in the name of Free Basics. This however, failed to percolate through India’s telecom regulator.
On February 8, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled against discriminatory access to data services and successfully delivered a blow to Facebook’s campaign, thereby backing Net Neutrality.
Acting as the crusader for connecting billions of Indians, Facebook threw in the idea of Free Basics to the internet users of India in a perfectly sugar coated manner. Without much awareness and deliberation, a petition could be sent to TRAI confirming one’s support with just the click of a button.
Speaking of the flaws of this bait thrown to the Indian mass, firstly, is the scenario of the current Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) in India. The internet is a carved network of amalgamations and inter-dependency. Therefore every TSP is interconnected to the other for the transmission of data. Allowing a bias towards a TSP to charge differentially for data will interrupt this system whereby now, because one TSP can now allow certain sites (which happen to be selectively the most visited sites or popular sites) to run faster on their network, it can slow down the data transmission for the same sites for the other TSPs. Also permitting price differentiation based on the type of content people access on the internet, would work against the very basis on which the internet has evolved and the way people connect with one another.
Secondly, the idea of Free Basics is to bring the internet to the people. To obtain a manufactured consent, it has very conveniently positioned itself as a beacon of light, providing internet to all the far reaches of India. The fact is Free Basics is neither free nor basic and is ironically against the concept of internet equality itself.
In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access does not prove to be a feasible measure because the knowledge, information and ideas of the people will only be formulated from what will be made accessible to them.
Furthermore, if Facebook is using non-affordability of access as a defense, it remains unclear as to how the people who have access to the free sites can migrate to the open internet in the first place. Therefore, the strategy is to give access to select sites (which again is not decided by people) and then having total control over the internet. It almost seems like Data Darwinism where the narrative can be formulated and shaped according to the discretion of the data providers leaving millions without a say or a choice.
Thirdly, big TSPs like Reliance will be the primary stakeholders here and not the people. The bargain of selectivity can totally be controlled by them which would leave no scope for smaller TSPs to provide any sort of service.
Fourthly, it is a threat to the internet being a medium as a whole. Bottlenecking of traffic to particular sites does not only mean Alibaba’s treasure for certain TSPs and websites, but it also hinders access to the other sites who have based their information availability and usage solely on the internet. Now, either these sites would have to advertise their sites on the pages of the heavy traffic sites or they would have to pay more to come into the purview of being one of the sites to have the privilege of being capable of having traffic, in other words a “Free” and “Basic” site.
Lastly, who owns and propagates Free Basics? It is owned by Internet.org, or in other words Facebook. Stand up for Free Basics and you have Facebook = Internet = Facebook.
It is an applauding factor that the telecom regulatory authority did not respond to emails or petitions, as TRAI wanted answers to questions and not blind support for a petition. As of now, the question to be answered for the future is how the bigger internet players, like Google or Facebook, can be tackled when it comes to the platform monopoly and how this monopoly can be prevented from influencing a country’s policy.
All views are personal