Facebook Free Basics: Nothing Free or Basic in this bargain of Privacy

If you are already sick of the ongoing debate on Free Basics, Network Neutrality, I apologise but it's inevitable when a giant North-American data miner decides to turn a serious issue into a joke and fool Indians by cranking up its PR machinery.

By Mishi Chowdhary

If you are already sick of the ongoing debate on Free Basics, Network Neutrality, I apologise but it's inevitable when a giant North-American data miner decides to turn a serious issue into a joke and fool Indians by cranking up its PR machinery. Violating network neutrality or integrity is as wildly profitable as it is socially destructive. This plot between telecommunications companies and Facebook to steal the Internet from a majority of Indians under the guise of helping must collapse.

This so-called philanthropy – which keeps coming back in different avatars – is nothing but an attempt to buy the de-anonymised packets of the Indian poor at a bulk rate, breaking their security in the process of destroying their privacy. Facebook has no alternative but to change the subject by confusing its users and spending crores on a disingenuous campaign. It makes up its own definitions of Network Neutrality, confuses by calling FreeBasics as digital equality.

India is a very attractive market for Facebook owing to its vast population. North America and Europe are saturated, China does not allow Facebook, in such a scenario developing countries are where the meat is. When surveillance is the business model of businesses like Facebook, then they will do everything to offer Indians the right to send all their traffic, tied to their personal identifying data, through Facebook servers, thus allowing Facebook to spy on all the Internet traffic of tens of millions of Indian consumers. Have we asked why have Google, Twitter not joined the FreeBasics platform if it's all about reaching millions of Indians as all these companies want to reach the maximum number of eyeballs?

What Facebook does not tell you is that there are many other successful models such as Grameenphone or "brought to you by" that give real access to the entire internet and not a few websites chosen by Facebook such as FreeBasics does.

It says it will bring the internet to people who cannot afford it and after using Free Basics for 30 days, they are able to buy data packs from Reliance Communications. Access to FreeBasics requires at least a smartphone, how does a person who cannot afford acquire the purchasing power to afford internet in 30 days of usage?

Facebook says it does not pay the telecom companies for FreeBasics but telecom companies shoulder the costs? How do these telecom companies make money? If Reliance Communications and its larger competitors can afford to provide basic subsidised internet services why do they need Facebook? Why can't they give 100MB of free data and let users taste the internet and thereafter convert to full users. What role does Facebook play here?

Last year, 100 million users came online, almost all without Facebook's help so why do we need a data miner like Facebook to work on this access?

Why do we who cherish our freedom so much allow Facebook to dictate what we do online? Why is it that the rich deserve a secure, full internet but the poor, a shoddy version of it with broken security? Facebbok is the only source of information on FreeBasics, it is the sole decider of technical guidelines and reserves the right to change them any time.

A recent interview of the proposed users of FreeBasics by Khabar Lahariya tells us that the users want the entire internet to explore and learn and not just share pictures and checkins of Facebook. They want Google, YouTube and other sources to learn from.

The 20th century thinkers want us to believe that Internet is like cable television, where they can slice up the websites and sell them like television channel packages. Little do they realize that you the customer is a 21st century netizen, well aware of what you want. For you, Internet is not a basket of media websites that you ‘consume’ any more than a highway is a collection of stores along the side of the road you could shop at.

The Internet is the possibility of unlimited interconnection, a social condition in which we can all be connected to everyone else everywhere, with rich technical connections that can allow us to produce services for one another and become the next Facebook or Google from India like Weibo is from China. It offers us the opportunity where we are no longer celebrating the NRI CEOs of technology companies but making our own heroes. This attempt, however, is to buy insurance against any future competition. Imagine, if Google had done this with Orkut, would Facebook exist?

If Facebook really wants to provide access it can offer Wi-Fi hotspots where people can access unrestricted internet just as the rich do. We need to fight this now because those of us who have experienced the great leveler call the internet want the next billion that come online to have the same experience and not a watered down, constantly surveilled version where phone companies and Facebook choose the winners and losers.

Mishi Choudhary is Technology lawyer and Executive Director at SFLC.IN.

To read why Free Basics isn't the demon it's made out to be, check out Free Basics: Regulatory principles versus Ideology by Mahesh Uppal

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