Tag Archives | Free basics

Kudos to TRAI—India ain’t a banana republic

The TRAI letter to Facebook on the issue of Free Basics has demonstrated that our institutions have enough discretion to stall veiled attempts in shaping public policy  

Asserting itself, TRAI in a strongly worded letter on 19th January, criticised Facebook calling its Free Basics campaign a “crude” attempt. It accused the social networking site of turning the consultation over differential pricing of data services into an “orchestrated opinion poll” to push its Free Basics. The company had run an aggressive campaign with full page newspaper ads. Reportedly, it spent more than Rs 300 crores. Free Basics allows users to access certain sites without data charges. However, there is nothing free about it. In addition, Facebook reworded the TRAI’s questions in its consultation paper into template responses which reduced users’ choice. The regulator had sought the views of stakeholders on differential pricing on data services being offered by operators. The responses sent by Facebook did not adequately cover the issues that TRAI was bringing out. The regulator pointed out that such interpretations as done by Facebook would have dangerous ramifications for policy making in India.

The number of responses received by TRAI is also bone of contention. TRAI said that it received only 1.89 million responses. Facebook on its part, stated in an email on 13th January that no mails could be delivered to the TRAI id after 17th December, 2015 and contested that it had sent more than 11 million responses. TRAI promptly replied as to why Facebook had to wait for 25 days before bringing this to notice. There was a certain degree of coercion and a lack of transparency in the manner that Facebook took the consent from its subscribers. The regulator had asked Facebook to tell its users to specifically answer queries raised in the paper. The responses sent by Facebook were not relevant to the questions posed by the regulator and instead it was a veiled attempt for its ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign. However, the regulator has stated that it will consider all the relevant responses sent by Facebook.

This stand off between the regulator and Facebook has come at a time when the social media giant is trying to vigorously establish its footprint in India. With this approach, TRAI has effectively demonstrated that it will not stand for being bullied by a multi national corporation trying to have its way. Whether Facebook backs off, or escalates this further remains to be seen.  On 21st January, TRAI is holding an open house on differential pricing and net neutrality involving all stakeholders. It will be interesting to watch the development as it will have a major impact on the internet services.

 

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

Featured image: Uniqeulycat(Cathy) Smith licensed from Creativecommons.org

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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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