Net Neutrality: Free is not really free!

Should tech giants like Facebook be allowed to become the gatekeepers of the Internet?

Abeer Kapoor Delhi        

Edited by: Nikhil Thiyyar 

One of the myriad characters, in Attia Hosain’s book, ‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’, brings to light the  consequences of the British relinquishing control of the government and leaving the Indians in charge. The British would-the character prophesized-just resume their roles as traders and merchants, as was earlier the case, with the erstwhile East India Company. India would still have to deal with their capital and the influence it would wield.

Earlier last week Facebook’s Free Basics programme was banned by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Through an interesting tweet, Marc Andreessen a member on the Facebook board of executives has made the colonial narrative relevant again. In a response to a tweet by Vikram Chachra, that compared Free Basics to Internet Colonialism, Andreessen said, “Anti-colonialism has been catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” While Mark Zuckerberg has distanced Facebook from the comments, the exchange between Chachra and Andreessen has nonetheless managed to raise a few pertinent questions.

Facebook, in the past couple of months, has pushed for the introduction of its Free Basics (earlier called the internet.org) which purportedly seeks to help bring the ‘next billion’ online. Free basics would provide internet services to one of the largest populations in the world, but there is a catch: the tech giant becomes the gatekeeper of the Internet.

The East India Company, it must be remembered, was the result of many trading companies banding together to ensure exclusive monopolistic rights over the trade with the East Indies. It succeeded in doing that and became the model for success of future capitalist ventures. Free basics is perhaps similar to the East India Company in many regards. For one, it ensures that Facebook and its partners get a leg up over the competition simply by virtue of being free. New startups won't be able to compete with the selected few services as everyone will tend to use the free alternative from Facebook’s walled garden. In turn, creating a monopolistic environment where only Facebook and its partners will thrive.

India has been identified as one of the biggest markets for growth in the digital space. Currently, India has one of the lowest percentages of the population that is using the internet. At only 19% it is far lower than the 46% in China and 86% in the United States. However, in the sheer number of people online it outstrips most countries, ranking 3rd in the world.

The digital transformation that the world is witnessing is touted as the third Industrial revolution, and it is only natural that those behind it would want to enter uncharted markets. The greed is visible in their eyes and so is the frothing at the corner of their mouth.

Facebook’s argument that Free basics would help the poor come online is a bogus one, to say the least. Even if Facebook succeeds in getting some fraction of the population online, its Free basics won’t offer the free and open internet. For example, most of the Internet’s key websites will not be there. There will be no Google, no YouTube, no Reddit. In fact, nothing which makes the internet what it is will be there. Somebody on the Free basics platform would not be able to look up a fact on Google, or learn something on Khan Academy or use Quikr to sell their used goods.

The pertinent question to ask is would Facebook have succeeded in becoming what it is if Free basics had existed in its era? Perhaps not. Facebook has become the behemoth it is because it outperformed social media websites such as Hi5, Myspace and Orkut. Facebook succeeded because it could take full advantage of free market forces. If the hegemonic impulses of companies like Facebook are not challenged then the internet would be very much like the US where the cities and states are divided between Comcast and Verizon.

Through heavy lobbying, large advertisements, and shrouding its argument under the garb of development and improvement Facebook has sought to convince India to follow its charted path. The model they want to institutionalise is called Zero Rating.Zero-rating is when an Internet provider, usually a mobile carrier, exempts certain types of Internet traffic from counting toward a subscriber’s data allotment. Mobile operators have a fundamental conflict of interest in selling both open internet access and as well their own or their selected partners’ online video and cloud services. If price discrimination such as zero rating is not banned, mobile operators have an incentive to favour their own services by zero rating the usage (selling gigabytes at zero cost) while collectively overpricing the gigabyte usage of all other internet services. Airtel Wynk is one such service that the TSP has made for itself to counter other music streaming apps such as gaana or saavn in the Indian content space. This makes it difficult for apps like gaana or saavn that exist on the outside to break in and this stifles progress and growth. They will not be able to get past the walled garden of free content. The point of this is to increase the penetration into rural areas where itself resources are scarce; money is short and data packages will seem as an added burden on the individuals. Unfortunately, the internet then will only mean a certain number of websites to the poor.

For example Naezy, a young hip-hop star from Mumbai who would seek to benefit from an open internet now would have had to pay more for a data package that would give him access to the entire web rather than just Facebook and its promoted sites.

Perhaps no-one's opinion is as significant as that of Tim Berners-Lee - the man who invented the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee earlier this year advised users to say no to zero-rating programs such as 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.