Facebook’s Free Basics program which allows people in 36 countries to access preferential websites for free, has drawn great criticism in its largest target market, India.
Let us understand the flurry of flak drawn by this program which is, after all, FREE.
WHAT IS FREE BASICS?
Facebook is selling its idea of internet.org as Free Basics like old wine in a new bottle, since September 2015, probably playing on the fact that anything “free” in India would be entertained like crazy.
Mark Zuckerberg, we know it’s our primary nature to “Accept” terms and conditions without reading them, but this has spiraled a little out of control.
Free Basics aims, or so it claims, to provide free internet access to the underprivileged in developing nations by providing a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.
Sounds like a life-changing idea? But this philanthropy is trouble in disguise.
THE BONE OF CONTENTION
In the simplest of the words, Free Basics violates the fundamental concept of net neutrality on which the internet functions.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
Net neutrality simply advocates that anyone from any corner of the world should be able to access or provide any services and content on the internet without any discrimination.
Anybody, even I, can purchase a domain and put up my content on the internet at the disposal of the world. My content shall be on an equal footing with the likes of Facebook, Google etc.
HOW IS FREE BASICS MISLEADING?
Slyly enough, Free Basics promises free access to Facebook and other services that partner with it, while every other service remains paid. Now, if all the users buy a Reliance connection to enjoy free access to Facebook, it would put the other competitors’ businesses as well as budding services in a limbo.
It’s not bringing unlimited access to the Internet to people, but to a small compartment of it.
Why should a giant website A be available for free because it can afford to participate in such a program while other growing services suffer? The basic argument is that the internet, not parts of it, should be free and equal for all users.
Why should a giant like Facebook get to be the gatekeeper of which services and content to make available for free? Why should a small minority of haves dictate the terms of internet usage for the majority of have-nots?
Facebook claims that Free Basics is an open platform that allows Indian developers to make their services available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access. Quite contrarily, it dictates the technical guidelines for Free Basics and reserves the right to change them. The right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms, is also reserved.
Taking expert advice, the inventor of World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee asks users to say no to Free Basics. He added that anything offered in the name of the “Internet” which isn’t the “full Internet”, isn’t really free and public.
Now, going by Zuckerberg’s explanation of Free Basics you would expect, that a poor kid from the slums of Delhi should be able to stream educational videos on YouTube, his mom should be able to search for employment opportunities online, his dad should be able to learn about better farming methods and cheaper resource markets in the vicinity, but no, none of the above are offered by this service.
Though, you can definitely poke fellow villagers, and extort cheaper goods by inundating them with candy crush requests. There is no Google, no Flipkart, no Amazon, No Whatsapp, no OLX, no Collegeguru or Naukri.com, no banking or loan services, no site of importance, only Facebook to die out of FOMO.
And, in case you regret having Free Basics, you can always update how you’re feeling about it.
Yet another loophole of this altruistic endeavor which has kept people in the dark is that Free Basics, by design, tracks all your web activities. All sites you visit, data you consume and content you go through is taken home to California.
In yet another blow, Facebook reveals that “Neither Facebook nor its content partners pay the operators for the data people consume through Free Basics.”
In other words, Reliance Communications is simply trading the privacy and security of the Free Basics users to Facebook, without getting paid for it, and is really providing all the subsidized Internet service to the poor at its own expense. This implies that Reliance Communications and its larger competitors are self-sufficient enough to afford to provide basic subsidized internet services themselves. Then why does it need Facebook to deliver this facility to the people?
Also, partnering with Reliance Communications, Free Basics will put a monetary burden on telecoms which will eventually be compensated by hiking the price of internet services that will entail encumbrance for the people at large.
So, let me burst the bubble. Free Basics is not essentially free. It comes at the heavy cost of your privacy and security. And, the basic services is a misnomer.
HOW DOES IT BENEFIT FACEBOOK?
With Facebook being the center piece of the Free Basics initiative, it will put the rivals at a great disadvantage.
Do you know who pays for Free Basics? Telecom operators making money from the users like you and me, pay for it and not Facebook.
A major chunk of the revenue of Facebook owes to the advertisement. Having a reachability of billions of Indians will provide it an edge over other advertisement firms.
In this age, the internet is a utility at par with water, electricity and food. No government agency or company can dictate which brand of wheat to buy and where to use the water consumed. However, the internet has fallen prey to commercial interests.
Facebook is trying to mislead the gullible Indian audience by selling “free” ideas, but the truth remains that about a 100 million users joined the internet in 2015, NOT because of Free Basics.
Are you still dual minded? Are you signing up without knowing what it is?
Image Credits: Google
Views presented in the article are those of the author and not of ED.