Why Free Basics should NOT have been banned in India

By Siddharth Parwatay | Published on 05 Feb 2016
Why Free Basics should NOT have been banned in India
  • Free Basics might not be such a bad idea after all. Before sharpening your pitchforks read on.

It’s easy to pander to popular opinion and cast a few stones in the right direction, in order to bag a few kudos along the way. The road less travelled – or in this case, taking an unpopular stance – is more difficult. However, it’s what we do here at Digit: analyse an issue by looking at it from all possible angles, even if the end result of the analysis goes against the popular opinion. At the very least, we are open to the existence of an alternate viewpoint. After all, even hardened criminals deserve representation and even if it’s an unsavoury job, someone’s got to do it. Due process is logical, in line with the scientific bent of mind that we keep preaching. Plus, it’s only fair.

A lot (and I mean an awful lot) has been written about why Free Basics is the harbinger of the internet apocalypse. Heck this other article we published recently says exactly that! Read that story and you have a few more points to add to your next anti-Zuck rant, which ironically enough, would take place on – surprise surprise – Facebook!

The whole argument for why Free Basics is not so bad hinges on whether some internet is better than no internet. On the surface at least you have to admit the notion isn’t totally unfounded, especially when you know that not even 30 percent of the population in our country is connected.

No one (and not even us, mind you) is saying that Free Basics is going to radically transform the lives of the underprivileged sections. But there has to be at least some benefit to be derived from gaining access to things like pregnancy and childcare information, job info, weather updates, free classifieds and Wikipedia in local languages – stuff that is universally regarded as beneficial.

There is an often quoted 2010 World Bank and IFC report which says for every 10 percentage-point increase in high-speed Internet connections there is an increase in economic growth of 1.3 percentage points. “But that’s high speed and unrestricted internet,” you scream! Yes, but you’ll be surprised to know that even adding scaled down internet connections can increase time spent online by as much as 150 per cent. This was documented by Philippines telecom operator Smart Communications back in 2012. If you follow that link you’ll also find that Google’s own zero rated service Free Zone launched in the Philippines in collaboration with local carrier Globe Telecom, was aimed at enticing users to sign up for Internet services – an outcome that isn’t horrible when applied to our indian scenario. At the very least, such statistics prove the usefulness of basic internet access.

Some technology access is always going to be more beneficial than none, even if it’s a limited experience. Consider the experiment run by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organisation in remote Ethiopian villages. They simply dropped tablets containing e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other content (but no internet access) without any prior training other than how to charge the devices. Within a few months the kids in those villages not only figured out how to consume the content, but even went so far as to customise their Android look and feel. Today, they’re ready to start consuming more content, and dare we say, hungry for more. I’ll come back to this point towards the end of this article, but for now, let’s look at the arguments against Free Basics.

It’s against net neutrality!

Ah the open and free level playing field that is the internet. A sublime utopia where all data is treated equally, where young upstarts armed with an idea can (in theory) overthrow established corporations, and yes, that young upstart could be you... But guess what? The internet isn’t neutral and it’s never been. Since I’m working with a limited amount of space to present my case, I’ll let Robert’s piece explain how. If you haven’t read it already I’d urge you to do so and then come back.

Even if you are a purist, consider the reality that the now abhorred term Zero Rating doesn’t mean that certain data streams are being given preferential treatment, it only means that certain data won’t be charged. Savetheinternet.in, the advocacy group that’s been doing a good job of keeping a lookout to protect the rights of indian netizens, often cites Gigato as a viable solution to address this problem of getting the underprivileged masses on to the internet. The popular belief is that unlike Free Basics, Gigato doesn’t violate net neutrality norms. Instead of not charging for certain types of data, Gigato actually refunds data that is consumed while connecting to their partner clients. Even if it doesn’t technically violate the (loosely defined) principles of net neutrality, at the very least the practice is anti-competitive because only those clients with already deep pockets can afford to pay for their user’s data. This breaks down the utopian “level-playing field” dream that we’re supposedly trying to protect.

What’s funny is that when a violation of net neutrality norms serves our interests, we don’t seem to care as much. Your ISP has a tie up with YouTube for local caching? This means that you don’t have to wait for ages for videos to buffer, and you love the experience. Unless you’re a YouTube competitor that is. Where are all the internet petitions against that? In some cases, ISPs don’t even count YouTube data against your FUP limit! If torrents were Zero Rated, would you honestly be up in arms to protest it?

If you need a refresher about this whole net neutrality debate here's a quick primer to get you upto speed

Carving up the internet

We’ve all seen the forwards. Rs. 50 for a WhatsApp pack, another Rs.10 for the Facebook pack… Yes, this is a very valid risk. However, like most other sectors in India, this one is regulated as well. We have a very competent regulatory authority that has shown some remarkable aptitude recently, when it penalised Facebook for its methods by calling them a “crude and orchestrated opinion poll”. Why such little faith in the TRAI? I’m quite happy with the way the TRAI is being inclusive (at least ostensibly) and following what looks like a well thought out process.

Scales of justice swaying already?

Think about it, maybe a well policed and government regulated Free Basics could actually end up as something beneficial to all. For example, let’s assume the TRAI puts in a regulation directing all telcos to always make available to everyone an “all access” internet pack. Such a pack shall never be priced higher than the price of 5 individual packs, and will never have differential data speeds. Plus, to preempt another criticism, let’s say that these options are only available to users who have been online with an all access pack for, say, three months. After that, let telcos have a field day coming up with whatever WhatsApp, and Viber and Flipkart packs they want to. If some people genuinely just want connectivity to social networking platforms when on the go, let them pay less and get that selective service. Another encouraging step is that the PMO has taken an interest in the subject recently.

Also, let’s face it, this whole debate isn’t really about whether Ganesh the farmer is going to benefit from Free Basics’ weather updates... it’s really about how we feel that a dangerous precedent will be set. You are afraid that if a restricted form of the internet is allowed to operate, who knows, one day there might be restrictions imposed on your porn and torrents. Let’s say an ISP says, “you know what, we will offer you a pack that doesn’t include porn or torrents for half the price.” Your dad will say wonderful and subscribe to it. How do you explain that you need both those? Or maybe it’s not ISP driven. May be it’s an overzealous government imposing some sanskari beliefs. If Free Basics is accepted, maybe that will get accepted too. Maybe people won’t come down to the streets in protest.

The point is firstly let’s drop the pretence that we care about the “quality” or “nature” of the internet that farmer Ganesh is getting. We’re more bothered about the larger fallout that could (with great leaps of an overactive imagination) someday affect us. Is that reason enough to deny Ganesh some form of access right now? I say let’s fight those imaginary demons when they manifest themselves. Not now.

Everyone deserves the full, unrestricted internet

We couldn’t agree more. If you read Zucky’s impassioned opinion pieces you’d probably see that beyond all the spiel, our seemingly do gooding billionaire is genuinely confused about the backlash he’s facing. In some foreign media coverage about this topic, I came across this very interesting line: The very people Free Basics was supposed to please seem to be its biggest detractors. The trouble is that the people who Free Basics was supposed to please are not the ones who are vocally against it. In fact this huge majority – the supposed recipient of this aid – is without a voice. Ironically the one thing that will give them this digital voice is being denied to them. Instead the already connected vocal minority – privileged internet-connected people like you and I – are the ones screaming ourselves hoarse on social media. Since it was a foreign news source you can forgive them for their lack of understanding of the nuances of this issue but at least people living here should be open minded enough. There are certain detractors of Free Basics who even go so far as to criticize the platform for not having JavaScript. That’s just absurd.

Think of a restaurant that starts offering free dal roti to anyone who wants it. A bunch of underprivileged people start having this free meal. It’s not stale or unpalatable, but it’s just very basic dal and roti. How correct is it for you to ask, “Why aren’t you feeding those poor people butter chicken and butter naan?” Actually, it’s more like you demanding that they be fed a buffet dinner fit for kings, and by using someone else’s money at that. And if they can’t be fed according to your standards, well, then they should go hungry. How incredibly caring you are! Oversimplification you say? Well, sometimes it helps to simplify in order to understand. The bottom line is, we have no idea what the masses want, and we certainly don’t know what they need.

Want a simple test of who you’re really worried about? Think about the government asking ISPs to provide free (full) internet to everyone, and allowing them to recover those costs from existing users. Since millions seem to care so much for those people, and giving them the “real” internet, surely just voluntary donations of money, or halving your bandwidth would allow at least another 300 million Indians to come online. Are you willing to sacrifice something? If your answer is no, then you really should stop lying about caring for the welfare of Ganesh the farmer.

Perhaps a fine balance needs to be maintained

Another popular argument is that that Facebook will forever taint the understanding of the next billion who come online. For them, Facebook will be synonymous with the internet. In fact, it’s stated that a large section of the connected population already thinks this. I really need to Google this fact to find out if its true. Oh sorry, I meant I need to search and find out if it’s true. See what I did there? The starting point for many people already is Google. You have probably heard some friends say, “I read it on Google”. No they didn’t!

Here’s another analogy: if I am a philanthropist shirt maker, and I give away my brand of shirts to an impoverished population of tribals, and they start thinking that all shirts are like this, or even worse, they start thinking all “clothing” means this shirt, what is so terrible here? Would you rather they stay naked and exposed to the elements? Insert a certain type of food, say Cerelac being fed to impoverished babies in the above example instead of clothing to help drive the point home.

After adhering to certain regulations even pharma companies can distribute their brand of drug to an impoverished or calamity hit population. Should we let them suffer with fever rather than risk the horror of them thinking that all paracetamol is crocin?

No one is stupid enough to suggest that Free Basics shouldn’t have guidelines and regulatory frameworks within which to operate. They certainly should. But banning something is a totalitarian move. There is some good to be derived out of Free Basics and we should strive to maximize that by formulating a water tight policy.

But we’ll all get connected anyway in a few years

One of the current arguments is that 100 million new internet users came online last year alone. It remains to be seen what demographic these connections came from and till what point the trend will continue to saturation without any change in policy. It’s not a correlation or causation enough to say that the trend will continue even if no change in pricing comes about. And even if it does, if you can boost the numbers with another solution, why deprive someone whose turn hasn’t yet come?

Free Basics isn’t a perfect solution, far from it. What we often fail to realise is that it’s  just a stop gap arrangement. It’s not a solution that India deserves, but it’s the one we have for now. Is Facebook stopping anyone else from finding a better way? If someone does offer a better way, won’t the masses accept that willingly? It took a Reliance to drop costs of mobile telephony in India. Did they get rich doing so? Obviously. Did it help? Yes. Should they have not been allowed to implement their disruption because people resented the fact that they would get rich doing so? You answer that…

Did you know
Two years ago Open Compute Project a Facebook Connectivity lab project was launched to build more efficient, economical data centers. Once significant progress was made designs were open-sourced. Yes, evilcorp did some good.

But… but... Zuckerberg is evil!

Perhaps. None of us know that.
Is Free Basics really charity? Maybe. Do we believe that helping people is Zuckerberg’s only true objective? Of course not! However, conscientious self interest is one of the fundamental pillars upon which the modern wave of internet giants have flourished. Do you seriously believe that, say, Google doesn’t care about its share prices? So what separates this ideology from pure self interest? A notion that uplifting oneself inherently involves uplifting people at large, and thereby serving your own interest as well as others’.

For example, when Google launched Chrome for free, or when they made an open source OS like Android, they made no effort to hide the fact that it also served their own interests to find more ways to get more people online. If anything, Zuckerberg’s biggest error was not being more open about this also being in Facebook’s best interests. A popular dig at Free Basics is that there are no promises that it’ll remain ad-free. Does Android make any such promises? Does any other “free” platform or service you are currently enjoying promise that?

Ouch, my privates!

A huge concern for people seems to be that Facebook will mine your data and make money off of it. Have you been living under a rock? Welcome to the internet! Your data is the new black gold! Name one company that doesn’t mine your data and try and use it to get you to buy stuff? I’m not saying it’s OK. I’m saying it’s not new, and in fact is the norm for pretty much all the services you use – Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon… you name it. When they do overstep their bounds, privacy advocacy groups (the whistle blowers who pour over EULAs and such) will do what they do best and there will be a big uproar, and then we’ll go back to liking like good sheep!

The bottom line is, whether there is a profit to be made or not, and whoever makes it, it’s not reason enough to deprive a huge section of the population of the chance to come online.

Would we be OK if say Jimmy Wales were to try and start something similar? Surely he’s not an evil profiteer like this Zuck fellow. Jimmy Wales for president! Oh. Wait. Wikipedia Zero already exists! Et tu Jimmy? Sure, they adhere to a much higher standard (or nobler one?) when it comes to privacy, but aren’t they messing with your precious net neutrality as well? If Wikipedia does it, it’s Angelic ascent, but if the devil (Zuckerberg) does it then you want to clip his ghoulish wings.

I think the TRAI can easily revoke their green signal to Free Basics (should they give it in the first place). In fact, the best solution would be to start a time bound trial. A Globe Telecom white paper documents that “Even after the free Facebook campaign ended in April 2014, users continued to join Globe’s network at a 2x rate of the pre-campaign baseline. The campaigns had an enduring impact on the rate of Internet adoption in the Philippines, even when access to Facebook was no longer free”. What we all must realise is that if you see some good in Free Basics, it doesn’t automatically make you pro-evil, or against net neutrality, or a baby-killer!

The (so called) solutions and a sobering conclusion

One argument suggests that Facebook can achieve its objectives with an ad supported model. You must’ve read about the growth in revenues figures that the company posted in another geography – the UK. What we don’t realise is that ad revenues per instance of usage are indeed significantly lower than data charges paid by the consumer. If we are to really calculate whether this is or isn’t a sustainable model via ads, we need to get much, much deeper into the TSP’s operating costs. Simply pointing at and saying “oh look how much ad revenue (not profits) they made overall” isn’t really a strong argument.

One of the other suggestions is to limit usage is by bandwidth instead of a walled garden. I remember reading 64 kbps as most commonly suggested cap. This makes me take a step back and take a re-look at the problem. What kind of content or rather kind of media will rural folk most benefit from? Text? Is there enough vernacular text online? Are the people who really need the help even literate? Also understand that being able to write your name is hardly a measure of literacy. Can these as yet unexposed masses ever get onto the internet without a filtered experience?

Radical upliftment projects are needed that's for sure

When I first came online I went to alltheweb.com because someone told me to do so. Maybe a filtered experience is better for an internet-illiterate person in order not to get overwhelmed. Maybe what we’ll end up doing is nothing more than taking someone who is illiterate, and putting them into the centre of a massive library with a million books, and saying, “Go uplift yourself!”

It’s not like I believe that Free Basics is the way to go. I actually believe that everyone’s got it wrong. Remember the OLPC example I said I would come back to? The one where illiterate kids were able to educate themselves and learn many new skills? They weren’t given access to Wikipedia, they were given a heck of a lot of educational video content. That’s how you uplift the backward in our country, by giving them access to video, which even Free Basics doesn’t do. For me personally, I think Free Basics won’t even scratch the surface of what India needs, but I’d much rather something scratch the surface while we look around for a powerful tool to bring down the huge wall that’s dividing the technology haves and have nots.

Siddharth Parwatay
Siddharth Parwatay

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About Me: Siddharth a.k.a. staticsid is a bigger geek than he'd like to admit. Sometimes even to himself. Read More


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