A Megacorp’s Basic Instinct
Bolstered by academia and civil society, TRAI stands its ground against FB’s Free Basics publicity blitz.
The article by Arindam Mukherjee was published in Outlook on February 8, 2016. Sunil Abraham was quoted.
Hours before the January 31 deadline for telecom regulator TRAI to give its opinion on Facebook’s controversial and expensive Free Basics pitch—which seeks to give India’s poor “free” access to certain partner websites—the consensus seems to be building up against the social media giant. “If there is cannibalising of the internet through services like Free Basics, the internet will be split; it will parcel out and slice the internet. Its future is at stake,” says a senior government official on condition of anonymity.
In a climate where the tech-savvy Modi government is seen to be close to the online trinity of Facebook, Google and Twitter, TRAI’s defiant stance in favour of net neutrality stands out. There’s a lot at stake. India’s position becomes crucial as few countries in the world have clearly defined laws on net neutrality or have taken a stand on it. For Facebook, there’s a lot more at stake. India is its second-largest user base after the US (it is banned in China), so it is leaving no stone unturned. The massive Rs 300-crore electronic and print media campaign is an indication of that.
TRAI sources say they are ready for any adverse onslaught and they are under no pressure from the PMO. The view gaining ground in government is that FB is trying to create a walled garden where it controls what people see and surf and what they can access online. While this will be offered to consumers for free—the technical term is differential pricing—the websites part of Free Basics will have to pay for being on the platform. Outlook’s queries to FB remained unanswered at the time of going to press.
At an ‘open house’ meeting to discuss TRAI’s consultation paper on differential pricing last week, regulator Ram Sevak Sharma stood firm against the barrage of pro-Free Basics opinions that flowed from FB, telecom operators and some members of the public. TRAI’s message was clear: FB’s tactics of moulding public opinion by stealth will not be acceptable in India. In the past few weeks, there have been bitter exchanges between TRAI and FB over the latter’s responses to a consultation paper on differential pricing.
TRAI’s defiant stand draws from an unprecedented show of strength by civil society against Free Basics and FB’s intentions. Says former Aadhar man Nandan Nilekani, “Free Basics is certainly against net neutrality. How can a solution be neutral, if it disproportionately benefits a particular website or business on the internet? Today, 400 million Indians are online. They came online because of the inherent value the internet offers. How can a walled garden of 100-odd websites provide the same value?”
What does Free Basics mean for PM Modi’s Digital India campaign? Being a walled garden, thousands of start-ups without adequate budgets to pay for such dedicated service will be forced to stay out of it. Similar questions are being raised about government services that are increasingly coming online. The concern is that all government traffic will have to pass through FB servers. The senior government official quoted above agrees, “In such a scenario, the government will have to approach FB to make its websites accessible on the free service which is neither desirable nor safe.”
The other fear is what happens to public data if it goes through a service like Free Basics. There is fear that a lot of government and public data will be put through Free Basics once government services start coming online. If Free Basics is for the poor who are also beneficiaries of government services, FB too can access this data. Says Prabir Purkayastha, chairman, Knowledge Commons, “FB says public service will be available through Free Basics but can public service be given through a private initiative? Public data is valuable and can’t be handed over to a private company.”
Few again are convinced by FB’s claim that Free Basics aims to make the internet accessible to the poor, with the many services offered through it. “The claim that the poor will get access to the internet is false,” warns Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. “Free Basics gives access to less than 100 of the one billion plus websites on the world wide web. Those in the walled garden will be treated quite differently.”
What gives TRAI a shot in the arm is that, for the first time, academia has put its weight behind Free Basics opponents. In a signed statement, several IIT and IISc Bangalore professors have said that Free Basics won’t serve the purpose FB is proposing and is not good for the country. “The problem is the internet being provided (via Free Basics) is a shrunken and sanitised version of the real thing. Free Basics is not a good proposal for the long-term development of a healthy and democratic internet setup in India,” says Amitabha Bagchi, IIT Delhi professor and one of the signatories to the memo.
Of course, many of the experts Outlook spoke to say that the government, and not FB, should be responsible for providing free internet to the people. Says Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director, IT for Change, “The government is sitting on Rs 40,000 crore of USO funds. It can surely utilise that to provide a free basic data package to people in India. Basic government services and emergency services should essentially be free.” Nilekani is also in favour of the government providing free internet to people. “The internet is a powerful poverty alleviation tool.... Government can do a direct benefit transfer for data, a more market-neutral way of achieving the goal of getting everyone on the internet,” he told Outlook.
Legally, though, there may be issues in stopping FB from introducing its Free Basics platform in India. Says Singh, “Technically, the Indian government may not be able to stop FB from introducing Free Basics in India as it is just a platform. What the government has to do is to stop telcos from collaborating with it for free internet because Indian telcos, not FB, mediate access to the internet.”
The demand for the government and TRAI to come clean on net neutrality has reached fever pitch. Experts like Nilekani feel that net neutrality, which does not allow zero rating and differential pricing based on telcos looking at the contents of the subscriber’s data packets, should be enshrined in law through an act of Parliament, the way countries like the US have done. TRAI has also proposed two models where the internet is provided free initially and charged at a later stage and another where content providers and websites reimburse the cost of browsing directly to consumers. Both these proposals have not found favour with experts who say that these are unworkable and only the government should disburse free internet.
In any case, all this is a matter of detail—important, no doubt. The key question is, what happens to Free Basics if TRAI rules in favour of net neutrality and goes against FB? “This is going to be a long-drawn-out battle as FB will certainly challenge this in court,” says the government official. After spending Rs 300 crore on publicity, there is no way it will roll over and die.