If you’re here with hazy to vague knowledge on the Free Basics debate, let’s start by jogging your memory on what Net Neutrality is by directing you to our earlier post on the topic. The significantly hyped up Free Basics programme from Facebook has run into quite a bit of trouble, particularly around those who believe firmly in entrenched values of free and open access internet in India, replete with equality.
Facebook came up with a petition addressed to TRAI, or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, and implored to users to sign it. A bunch of unsuspecting people signed on – inspiring a wave of “Billu did not sign the petition” memes among other things. As soon as the petition heated up in so far as seeking attention was concerned, the petition was also met with stiff opposition with a counter-petition. The tech-driven side of India’s business endeavours, from start-ups to full-blown organisations – all supported the activism against Free Basics.
In a nutshell, Free Basics is nothing but Internet.org – which is the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg. If one were to go by what Facebook describes it, it would amount to “an open platform that gives Indian developers the opportunity to make their services and websites available free of cost to those who cannot afford internet access.” But, the catch is that the element of free access is limited to partner websites and applications only, and the program was launched two years ago, across the world, in collaboration with Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia and Qualcomm.
Dig deeper, and the chinks in the armour begin to show. Free Basics is neither free/fair, nor provides the basics. What it does, instead, is to partner with Internet Service Providers to provide a preferential and selective range of access options to certain app developers and services, ONLY. This is the main issue with Free Basics – it derails the notion that the internet is an equal space for all users alike.
So what’s the deal? Are we giving into Free Basics out of peer pressure, or are we vetoing without reason? The essence one needs to keep in mind while evaluating this is, what the internet means to us. With the push of a button, the world is at your doorstep: be it in information gathering or online shopping, communicating with loved ones or building tech-centred partnerships across the world for science, social needs and such else. The internet, therefore, has become a communal space to accomplish with ease, to congregate without too much difficulty, and to make available what is otherwise difficult to access. Think about it. If Free Basics went live, and a bunch of websites were cut out of your accessibility, how much of a setback can it be?
In the face of a catastrophe, or in the event of a social challenge, communication has a huge role to play. Free Basics could be a spoke in the wheel for that. In the business of marketing, from trying to stand out in the crowd of a milling millions, we might just find ourselves blurring into the background – as one big knot of a maddening crowd.
Free Basics, in simple terms, therefore, is neither free, nor gives you the basics you deserve to enjoy, for a completely free, fair and equal opportunity to access the internet.