Facebook users in the country have been bombarded off late, by a sudden influx of notifications claiming that their friends had “voiced their opinion” on “Free Basics.” Apart from a very clever choice of semantics, this seemingly new internet phenomena does not have much to offer. A mere revamp of 2013 inducted- Internet.org, Free Basics claims to “give people access to vital services, such as communication, healthcare, education, job listings, and farming information- all without data charges.” The campaigns emotional appeal was initially an effective bait for Facebook’s large Indian user base, with 1.4 million emails sent to TRAI in favor of Free Basics. However, as time passed, a collective front of entrepreneurs, students and members of India’s vast and impressive online community was able to gather force, launching a protest against Facebook’s attempt to establish a segmented and discriminatory internet.
But what is Free Basics and how is it a threat to net neutrality? Zuckerberg’s new campaign claims to “give people access to vital services, such as communication, healthcare, education, job listings and farming information – all without data charges. It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help with getting started online. And it’s open to all people, developers and mobile networks.” But the internet they offer is a watered down version consisting of a narrow selection of hand picked websites including of course, Facebook itself. Instead of providing communities who would otherwise be unable to access online resources with unhindered net services perhaps at a subsidized rate, as suggested by Nandan Nilekani, former Infosys co-founder; Free Basics provides a restrictive and undemocratic alternative. Large conglomerates and companies controlling the Internet would call for a large scale and devastating restructuring of an otherwise free internet.
Zuckerberg proposed the idea to Indias software industry trade body, NASSCOM and in a commentary piece on the same even went as far as comparing Free Basics to public libraries, state run schools and hospitals.
Entrepreneurs in India have played a huge role in the protest against Free Basics. A campaign like this would destroy India’s booming start up eco system with large companies finding their place in Facebooks packaged internet programme and web entrepreneurs having no one and no where to turn to. Facebook has been accused of deceiving it’s users into sending emails to TRAI in support of Free Basics failing to mention the finer details of course. True caller, a caller identification app has recently joined the protest, with co-founder Nari Zarringhalam tweeting- “@Truecaller stands with India in this important topic, true internet is non-gated and democratic. We’ll make our users aware today.”
So the next time your cursor hovers over that free basics notification imagine the loss of free and absolute access to the internet as we know it, and a few commercially selected websites in its place. All sections of society must enjoy full access to the internet to ensure opportunities and both professional and educational development, however Free Basics is most definitely not the answer. The government must initiate reforms to allow greater net services but this must not be at the expense of democracy. The Internet is a commodity that everyone should have access to in entirety. A portion of it, selected keeping in mind commercial interests will not solve the problem but merely create opportunities for monopolization.