So, you must've heard about Facebook's plan to "bring the Internet to the poor in India" that they've named Internet.org/Free Basics. If you've read the plan in detail, you'll see that it isn't really bringing the Internet to anyone for free. Well, technically it is, but let's look at the complete picture before we begin celebrating, shall we?
Fact: "Free basics" is not providing free access to the whole of the Internet.
It isn't even part of the plan. Instead, it intends to provide free access to some services, a select few, of its own choosing. People can access these sites for free, and if they wish to access anything off this list, on the whole of the Internet as we know it, they'll have to cough up!
The list of services is in the hands of Free basics, of course, which consists of Facebook and its telecommunication partners (Reliance in India). Technically, there is a "provision" that makes it possible for any service to join the list, but Facebook and its friends have the final say. At the moment, for example, Google isn't even included - they use Bing as their search engine instead. Now, whether you prefer Google or Bing is your personal choice, but the point is that it should be your choice, not the service provider's. The argument is the same for the other services on the Internet.
To explain this with a rather simplified illustration, consider two kirana stores that you frequent for your daily requirements - groceries and things that we can term "basics" - that mostly have similar prices and are both at a walkable distance from home. Now, as a regular customer, you'll know details about these stores - which is better for what, where the shopkeeper is friendlier, and so on. If you're not, you can walk into both stores and give them each a go and in the process decide on which you prefer. You choose. Now consider a scenario where you can walk to store A but have to spend 100 rupees to get to store B. Wouldn't you be more likely to just go to store A - one you can walk to without spending a rupee? Even if something was better at store B, unless the gulf in standard is vast enough, most would just head to store A. Apply the same logic to something as fundamental to the Internet as search services - if you were expected to pay to use Google, but Bing was provided for free, wouldn't first timers just use Bing, and wouldn't even a Google user get sick of paying and grudgingly move to Bing? The service provider is dictating choice here, and that is the flaw in the plan.
Effectively, it seems to not be so much "providing free internet to the poor" as "make only our services available to a large consumer market" dressed up in noble, altruistic packaging. If the idea really is to provide free internet to the masses, why not just give them 500MB of data without limiting what services it should be spent on?
Now, I do understand that corporations are profit making machines, and it is OK for them to expect returns on investments. Fair enough, why should Google profit from infrastructure that Facebook and Microsoft are providing? That's all right, but then come out and say it. Don't call it "Free basics" because that's not what it is. Make it one of the many schemes you get with your sim cards instead. No one, and especially not large corporations with deep pockets, should be able to exert control on anyone's access to the Internet, especially not while claiming it to be for the better of the people.
Do your research, folks.
Anyway, please don't take my word for it, do your research and make up your own mind. It is the most important part of the process, the most important philosophy here - the freedom to access the whole body of information that will enable one to make an informed decision - the right to choose the service that you deem fit. The following links will get you started:
- Poor internet for poor people: Why Facebook’s Internet.org amounts to economic racism
- The save the Internet blog
- Mark Zuckerberg's editorial in a newspaper in India - read carefully, note that he doesn't discuss at all how the "free basics" are decided on, and while he says, and I quote 'Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected. These two principles - net neutrality and universal connectivity - can and must coexist.', he doesn't mention how they will coexist while some services receive preferential treatment.
- Academics at the IITs and IISc also see the flaws in Internet.org
If you agree with me and the thousands of other people that are speaking out against this misguided initiative, please go to http://www.savetheinternet.in and follow their instructions to inform the TRAI.
PS: Thanks to my pal Saahil for various discussions, clarification, and notes on this topic and post.