Centre for Internet & Society

Shweta Sengar of Catch News spoke to Sunil Abraham about the recent advertisement by Facebook titled "What Net Neutrality Activists won't Tell You or, the Top 10 Facts about Free Basics". Sunil argued against the validity of all the 'top 10 facts'.


Facebook has rebranded internet.org as Free Basics. After suffering from several harsh blows from the net neutrality activists in India, the social media behemoth is positioning a movement in order to capture user attention.

Apart from a mammoth two page advertisement on Free Basics on 23 December in a leading English daily, we spotted a numerous hoardings across the capital.

Unlike Facebook, Wikipedia has a rather upfront approach for raising funds. You must have noticed a pop-up as you open Wikipedia when they are in need of funds. What Facebook has done is branded Free Basics as 'free' as the basic needs of life.

The newspaper advertisement by Facebook was aimed at clearing all the doubts about Free Basics. The 10 facts highlighted a connected India and urging users to take the "first step towards digital equality."

In an interview with Catch, Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of Bangalore based research organisation, the Centre for Internet and Society, shared his thoughts on the controversial subject. Abraham countered each of Facebook's ten arguments. Take a look:


01 Free basics is open to any carriers. Any mobile operator can join us in connecting India.

Sunil Abraham: Free Basics was initially exclusive to only one telecom operator in most markets that it was available in.

The non-exclusivity was introduced only after activists in India complained. But now the arrangement is exclusive to Free Basics as a walled garden provider. But discrimination harms remain until other Internet services can also have what Facebook has from telecom operators ie. free access to their destinations.


02 We do not charge anyone anything for Free Basics. Period.

SA: As Bruce Schneier says "surveillance is the business model of the Internet". Free basics users are subject to an additional layer of surveillance ie. the data retention by the Facebook proxy server. Just as Facebook cannot say that they are ignoring Data Protection law because Facebook is a free product - they cannot say that Free Basics can violate network neutrality law because it is a free service. For ex. Flipkart should get Flipkart Basic on all Indian ISPs and Telcos.


03 We do not pay for the data consumed in Free Basics. Operators participate because the program has proven to bring more people online. Free Basics has brought new people onto mobile networks on average over 50% faster since launching the service.

SA: Facebook has been quoting statistics as evidence to influence the policy formulation process. But we need the absolute numbers and we also need them to be independently verifiable. At the very least we need the means to cross verify these numbers with numbers that telcos and ISPs routinely submit to TRAI.

Theoretical harms must be addressed through net neutrality regulation. For example, you don't have to build a single, centralised database of all Indian citizens to know that it can be compromised - from a security design perspective centralisation is always a bad idea. Gatekeeping powers given to any powerful entity will be compromised. While evidence is useful, regulation can already begin based on well established regulatory principles. After scientific evidence has been made available - the regulation can be tweaked.


04 Any developer or publisher can have their content on Free Basics. There are clear technical specs openly published here ... and we have never rejected an app or publisher who has me these tech specs.

SA: Again this was only done as a retrospective fix after network neutrality activists in India complained about exclusive arrangements. For example, the music streaming service Hungama is not a low-bandwidth destination but since it was included the technical specifications only mentions large images and video files. Many of the other sites are indistinguishable from their web equivalents clearly indicating that this was just an afterthought. At the moment Free Basics has become controversial so most developers and publishers are not approaching them so there is no way for us to verify Facebook's claim.


05 Nearly 800 developers in India have signed their support for Free Basics.

SA: I guess these are software developers working in the services industry who don't see themselves as potential competition to Facebook or any of the services within Free Basics. Also since Facebook as been completely disingenuous when it comes to soliciting support for their campaigns it is very hard to believe these claims. It has tried to change the meaning of the phrase "net neutrality" and has framed the debate in an inaccurate manner - therefore I could quite confidently say that these developers must have been fooled into supporting Free Basics.


06 It is not a walled garden: In India, 40% of people who come online through Free Basics are paying for data and accessing the full internet within the first 30 days. In the same time period, 8 times more people are paying versus staying on just

SA: Again, no absolute numbers and also no granularity in the data that makes it impossible for anyone to verify these numbers. Also there is no way to compare these numbers to access options that are respectful of network neutrality such as equal rating. If the numbers are roughly the same for equal rating and zero-rating then there is no strong case to be made for zero-rating.


07 Free Basics is growing and popular in 36 other countries, which have welcomed the program with open arms and seen the enormous benefits it has brought.

SA: Free Basics was one of the most controversial topics at the last Internet Governance Forum. A gratis service is definitely going to be popular but that does not mean forbearance is the only option for the regulator. In countries with strong civil society and/or a strong regulator, Free Basics has ran into trouble. Facebook has been able to launch Free Basics only in jurisdictions where regulators are still undecided about net neutrality. India and Brazil are the last battle grounds for net neutrality and that is why Facebook is spending advertising dollar and using it's infrastructure to win the global south.


08 In a recent representative poll, 86% of Indians supported Free Basics by Facebook, and the idea that everyone deserves access to free basic internet services.

SA: This is the poll which was framed in alarmist language where Indian were asked to choose between perpetuating or bridging the digital divide. This is a false choice that Facebook is perpetuating - with forward-looking positive Network Neutrality rules as advocated by Dr. Chris Marsden it should be possible to bridge digital divide without incurring any free speech, competition, innovation and diversity harms.


09 In the past several days, 3.2 million people have petitioned the TRAI in support of Free Basics.

SA: Obviously - since Free Basics is better than nothing. But the real choice should have been - are you a) against network neutrality ie. would you like to see Facebook play gatekeeper on the Internet OR b) for network neutrality ie. would you like to see Free Basics forced to comply with network neutrality rules and expand access without harms to consumers and innovators.


10 There are no ads in the version of Facebook on Free Basics. Facebook produces no revenue. We are doing this to connect India, and the benefits to do are clear.

SA: As someone who has watched the Internet economy since the first dot com boom - it is absolutely clear that consumer acquisition is as important as revenues. They are doing it to connect people to Facebook and as a result some people will also connect to the Internet. But India is the last market on the planet where the walled garden can be bigger than the Internet, and therefore Facebook is manipulating the discourse through it's dominance of the networked public sphere.

Bravo to TRAI and network neutrality activists for taking Facebook on.


Originally published by Catch News, on December 24, 2015.


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