Why Free Basics is a bad idea

Free basics violates the basic principle of net neutrality despite being within the four corners of the law and must not be allowed

 

In the last couple of days, Facebook has inundated Indian newspapers with full page ads about Free Basics. The savvy marketing seeks to woo the consumer by asking an innocent question like who could be possibly against free internet? Mark Zuckerberg has tried to make a convincing case in his blog post in the Times of India. In trying to corner a slice of rapidly growing Indian market, free basics junked its old avatar of Internet.org and tried to position itself as messiah of the poor and needy. What could be the main objections to Free Basics? What did the campaign for free basics achieve?

There is nothing ‘free’ about it. When Free Basics planned to launch with Reliance Jio network, its aim was to corner a giant share of the Indian market with selective apps and ads riding on its application. Of course the apps on Facebook are free but what about other start-ups and entrepreneurs/businesses? Simple analogy will be to compare a newly built superhighway, which allows only Mercedes or Audis to operate and discriminates against all other forms of transport. The Telecom Service Provider (TSP) will provide good network speeds for Facebook. What stops TSPs from giving slower/limited access to other websites? Mark Graham, Associate professor of Oxford University argues that free basics is able to read all the data passing through its platform in whatever form it may be. Big data is the oil of the future. E-commerce companies are ever hungry for data. Making Free Basics succeed would only mean cartelising the Internet with some specific telecom service providers having a greater share of the market. Free Basics would ride on some specific TSPs and nothing stops it from setting its own terms and conditions.  It would mean shifting from the consumer to certain clients and their business interests. Nikhil Pahwa, well known Internet activist quotes evidence from research to say that less & low income groups prefer access to unrestricted Internet. Free basics is no way altruistic or charitable in its approach.

There are times when media blitz campaigns have certain unintended consequences. Facebook’s campaign has had one positive effect. It coalesced the Indian middle class opinion that those who cannot afford connectivity must be provided some basic free connectivity as an entitlement. This is a little surprising because the middle class sentiment is largely pro free markets and anti subsidies. The public policy on this subject is yet to emerge with some sense of clarity. The government’s National Optical Fibre Network(NOFN) project is expected to be in place in two to four years which will form the backbone infrastructure for Digital India. This is not an argument for freebies. But neither Free Basics is the answer. For the time being, focus must be to prevent Free Basics from succeeding.

 

Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets at @guruaiyar.

Featured image credit: Link-up with Mosman Library on Facebook, licensed under Creative Commons.

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