Free Basics – formerly, Internet.org is Facebook’s initiative to provide free, but limited Internet to the developing world. Last week, the Times of India reported that India’s telecom body asked Facebook’s partner, the wireless carrier Reliance, to cease the service while it determines whether operators should be able to price their services based on content.
Mark Zuckerberg emerged from his paternity leave to pen an op-ed article in the English-language daily. Basically, he can’t believe that India isn’t grateful for it. I, myself am still deciding whose side I am now, but let’s take a look at his response to figure it out.
The first time I breezed through his article, I could pick up on the annoyance. On the second read, I realized how Zuckerberg sees India, where about a billion people are not connected to the Internet, as backwards for even questioning Facebook’s charitable endeavor.
“Who could possibly be against this?” he asks passive-aggressively. “Surprisingly, over the last year there’s been a big debate about this in India.”
Even though net neutrality is an issue in the United States as well, Zuckerberg makes it more of a first-world problem, such that it doesn’t apply to India because limited service is better than no service. Net neutrality activists are arguing that Facebook and its telecom partners are gatekeepers, deciding which websites can be accessed for free. While Facebook could add more telecom partners to open up the number of sites and services Free Basics users could use for free, it only has one partner in India.
Zuckerberg does acknowledge that Free Basics does not provide people with access to the full web, but sees it as a step in the right direction. He claims that half of the people that come online for the first time by using Free Basics, buy full internet access within 30 days.
He even tells the story of a farmer named Ganesh, who uses the free Internet service to check weather updates and commodity prices. He asked, “How does Ganesh being able to better tend his crops hurt the internet?”
Something that Zuckerberg failed to address is that zero-rated services like Free Basics amount to economic discrimination – poor Internet for poor people. In the Times of India in October, net-neutrality advocacy group Savetheinternet.in quoted Tim Berners-Lee, father of the internet, as saying: “Economic discrimination is just as harmful as technical discrimination, so [internet service providers] will still be able to pick winners and losers online.” Facebook’s walled garden could very well determine the sites and services that will succeed in India.
What do you think?