Is Free Basics really Net Neutrality?

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on February 28, 2016

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?"

This is a Latin phrase written by the Roman poet Juval, which literally translated means “who will guard the guard themselves?” This theme is aptly applicable to the debate between free basics and net neutrality – Is Facebook the guardian who decides what free basics are?

Image: pixabay

According to a report published by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, nearly 57% of the world’s population still does not have any internet access. In order to bridge this gap, Mark Zuckerberg had initiated the concept a couple of years back. This would ideally help in providing free internet access to three fifth of the world’s population who didn’t have access, but this would come at a moral cost. According to net-neutrality activists, Free Basics is neither free, nor does it constitute the basics.

Free Basics – It is the brainchild of Facebook, a platform which enables free access to important internet services on subjects like news entrepreneurship, education, healthcare etc. and free access to Facebook and few other applications like OLX, Cleartrip, TimesJob etc.  India has the largest user base of Facebook of about 125 million, the largest outside USA. Facebook wanted to leverage these numbers to ratify its free basics program, which was earlier known as Free Basics was started in India last February in partnership with RCom. According to Facebook, if Free Basics is implemented, it will help in providing some form of internet access to 1 billion Indians who currently have no access to the net.

Free Internet Browsing in India on 3G Speed with Reliance SIM

Contradiction with Net Neutrality - Free basics utilizes the concept of zero rating i.e. data which is provided at a subsidized rate by a 3rd party. Any zero rating application uses differential pricing by segregating the internet content into free and paid forms. This is in direct opposition to the concept of net-neutrality which states that people from anywhere on the planet should get equal access to any content on the web without any discrimination by the ISPs.

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee had opined that users should reject initiatives like Internet.Org as it does not provide the full internet.

The main concerns raised against net neutrality can be summed up very effectively by three issues raised by an aggregation of IIT and IISC professors in India

- Facebook gets to choose what is “basic”- This is a huge flaw as Facebook being a private company might not be able to maintain objectivity on the matter. They have already set up an interface to ratify services as “basic”.

- Facebook will be able to access to all our data on our apps – Facebook claims that it doesn’t store any user specific information from the apps for more than 90 days. However, even having sensitive data from critical apps like healthcare apps or banking apps will mean that Facebook gets access to users’ banking information or health risk information which is a troublesome privacy issue. Furthermore, any web search done is through the Bing platform where the data is routed through the Facebook servers.

- The service is not really “free” – All the claims of the Free Basics service being free is not really accurate and is just a market gimmick as it comes with the hidden cost of differential pricing affecting digital freedom.

Facebook’s claims:

Around 3.2 million Indian Facebook users had supported the Free Basics petition to TRAI sent through Facebook. Free Basics has also been generously accepted in 36 countries and it also had most of the top websites in Indian version like Bing, India Today [ ] etc.

Alternate Views:

The 3.2 million people didn’t know the full story and clicked on the supporting notification thinking that Free Basics was a noble program supporting “Free Internet”. Most of these 36 countries are African countries with lower GDP having no better options. More developed countries like Japan, Norway or Netherlands have stayed away. Free Basics had only Wikipedia as a top website. It had no Google, Flipkart, Amazon YouTube, PayTM, NDTV, IRCTC etc. Facebook had spent about Rs.100 crores on their ad campaigns and PR. Instead the same money could provide 5 million Indians at least 100 MB of 2G internet access for a complete year instead of restricting them inside a Facebook “Free Basic” jail.

Zuckerberg has violated the deontological ethical rules by neglecting net neutrality in order to justify his ends of internet penetration. Most people are unaware that Free Basics is not the only alternative. Mozilla’s Grameen Phone program provides users free 20 MB per day or Orange’s initiative in Africa provides 500 MB free data without violating net neutrality. Hence it’s the users’ choice if they get convinced by Facebook’s marketing gimmick or whether they can convince TRAI to discontinue Free Basics permanently to protect Net Neutrality.

This article has been authored by Swagato Sarkar & Ashmita Bose from XLRI, IIM RANCHI


• Dixit, Pranav, Hindustan Times. 12/30/2015

• Lucy Schouten Staff, Christian Science Monitor. 9/25/2015



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