The net neutrality debate: How free are these ‘basics’?
- January 5, 2016
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Uncategorized
One thing we could not have missed this past week were the full-page advertisements on the ‘Free Basics’ (part of internet.org) scheme floated by Facebook. And for those who use the social networking site, there were daily notifications about how some of their friends have written to the Telecom and Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) supporting digital equality in India.
It all started with Facebook beginning a scheme called internet.org (now called ‘Free Basics’) with the aim of widening access to the internet, especially providing it to millions of mobile phone users in rural areas. The scheme involves a ‘zero-rating’ system. Under this, in India, Facebook has tied up with RCom, a telecom provider to provide a text-only version of Facebook and some news, health and job alert services for free to users of the network. One might ask- why is this a problem? Isn’t it a move towards greater access to all that the world wide web has to offer?
The answer lies in the question itself, because, as a matter of fact, Free Basics does not allow access to all that the world wide web has to offer. It is a service offered by one operator to its users and the applications and websites to which users have access will be decided by Facebook itself. This is being seen as a threat to net neutrality because it will favour some websites over others and users will not be exposed to all the information and services on the internet and be allowed to choose the best. Anyone who has ever changed a default search engine can understand what it might be like to stay stuck to a particular option, and this is what users of such a ‘free’ service might get stuck with, unless they want to pay and get an upgraded package. This will lead to a ‘class system’ in the virtual world rather than giving impetus to equality, where users are classified according to how much they can pay and service providers classified according to whether they are affiliated to Free Basics (or similar intiatives) or not. Facebook argues that all developers can apply to be a part of the initiative but who knows on what basis they will be selected? In fact, why ‘select’ and ‘reject’ developers at all, if it is about inclusive and ‘free’ access?
Another argument advanced by Facebook in support of this initiative is that it has no vested commercial interest here since there will be no ads in the version of Facebook on Free Basics. However, who is to say that this will not change in future and by that time, users will be so accustomed to the app that they would be ‘trapped’ rather than ‘freed’.
While it has been embraced in several countries, interestingly many ‘progressive’ countries like Japan, Netherlands, Canada etc. have banned it. Prima facie, one might think of the latter as rather draconian, trying to stop people from gaining access to the internet in this ‘free’ world. But the flip side is that an initiative like Free Basics provides might become an exclusive club run from Silicon Valley, one with limited information which can be detrimental for social, cultural and commercial progress, for “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”