Hyderabad: Demonstrations have given a completely new dimension to the agitation against the Free Basics initiative by Facebook. It may sound natural for the protest rallies and demonstrations to happen in Hyderabad, where the India office of Facebook is located. The pro-net neutrality agitators describe it as a manifestation of the nation’s mood against the attempts for a monopoly on internet.
With the TRAI’s deadline for submission of views is 7 January on Facebook’s attempt to provide Free Basics services by widening the user base of internet in India, the net neutrality crusaders have stepped up their campaign on and off line against it.
Y Kiran Chandra, Chairman of Swecha, crusaders of free and open-source software, and general secretary of Free Software Movement of India (FSMI), told Firstpost that the agitation program is intended at talking to like-minded people on net neutrality and campaigning together on saving the internet from being monopolized by the rich and influential.
“Now that the date of comments on Free Basics is extended upto 7 January, we are asking and motivating more and more people to send emails and comments in favour of net-neutrality,” he says.
The last three days of the deadline are crucial. The decision of TRAI hinges on the support mustered by the net-neutrality activists, who see the statement of professors from IIT and IISc in support of net neutrality and raising the concerns over the challenges arising out of FreeBasics as a morale booster.
Sidhartha Malempati, vice-president of Swecha, says that there are a lot of Indian companies that have expressed their concerns and voted against Free Basics. They expect more of this to happen in coming three days. “Facebook has responded to our questions on info.internet.org. This shows how seriously FB has taken us. We will respond to those and do our bit to take this to a larger audience. Apart from this, we will spread awareness among people using social media and other means, including traditional media,” says Kiran Chandra.
Regarding the splurge by Facebook in unleashing a massive publicity blitzkrieg to motivate more and more people and enlisting their support for Free Basics initiative, he says this campaign and the “knee-jerk reactions” by Facebook are clear indicators for their voices are not feeble in front of the loud rhetoric of Facebook.
Internet penetration in India is growing and there are around 40 crore internet users in India, which is less than 40% of the country’s population. Facebook is hopeful that Free Basics will be able to connect the remaining two-thirds of population in the country that is left outside the ambit of internet -- even with access to a limited number of websites, platforms, and apps.
Kiran says Free Basics has connected 15 million people worldwide, whereas in India, more than 60 million connections were added in the last 12 months without Free Basics and in spite of the high data prices.
“We would also like to stress that being able to access Free Basics is not to be termed as access to Internet. It is like having access only to the movie section of a newspaper and then terming it as having access to 'news',” points out Kiran.
If TRAI permits the Free Basics into India, there is a very high chance that access to internet will become costlier and preferential access to websites will become the norm. For example, accessing Facebook might be faster than accessing news or informational videos on YouTube. Certain websites might become so slow to the extent that they are practically unusable.
This could sound a death knell for a lot of small and medium enterprises, including start-ups and small news websites, among other things.
“Barrier of entry” is the major issue for small enterprises and start-ups. The companies which have a tie-up with Free Basics will always have an advantage over those which don't, a case where a healthy competition is lost completely. This could adversely affect the ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ campaigns.
Swecha and FMSI could rope in IT employees and students to come forward to take part in the agitation.
They feel that Facebook has misinformed and under-informed them. Most of them have expressed doubts in Facebook's intentions with Free Basics, when they haven’t been able to find any “reject button” in notifications of their respective Facebook accounts. Some have even complained that they have got notifications, which have shown that even the Facebook accounts of the deceased were also listed as supporters to free basics, recounts Kiran.
“We are seeing a lot of groups of people across the country showing outrage against Free Basics. Cobbling up the efforts with these groups is what FMSI is doing so that they are united in the struggle to protect the internet as we know it,” says Sidhartha.
The single-point charter of Swecha is: “Free basics should not be permitted in India, to save the innovation capacity, emerging knowledge society, net neutrality and sovereignty.”
Against this background, Hyd Park, an open platform for discussions and exchange of ideas, debates, books, and intellectual, literary events, will be organising a debate with net neutrality crusader Mahesh Murthy, founder of Seedfund and Pinstorm, Sriram Karri, author of An Autobiography of a Mad Nation debating the “Free Basics is Bad for India” on 10 January, Sunday.
Karri tells Firstpost that he is in favour of Free Basics as millions of people who don’t have access to internet will be connected. He says Free Basics is not against neutral internet, they co-exist. Mark Zuckerberg has announced that Free Basics can be accessed by any telco, and lets developers place their services free of cost. All developers and telcos are welcome at no cost, he quotes Free Basics campaign as claiming. “They miss every known context of life in arguing for net neutrality,” he points out. Personally you may be dead against the monopoly of Facebook. But if internet is food, Free Basics is offering at least something to the starving. Above all, Sriram Karri says, the poor can reject this charity.