Facebook Myths and the Facts about 'Free' Basics: Distortion Again

Facebook's assault on the privacy of the Indian poor has reached the "do or die" stage.

By Eben Moglen and Mishi Choudhary

Facebook's assault on the privacy of the Indian poor has reached the "do or die" stage. One last massive effort is underway to buy a change in the climate of opinion, to obscure the realities and simulate grass roots support, before the giant is forced into an inevitable climbdown.

In such situations, the "myth/fact persuader" is a staple of the practitioners of public relations. Sure enough, Facebook put out a "myth/fact" fabrication in late November, packaged as a slickly informal video from internet.org.

To begin with, naturally, "Facebook takes user privacy and security extremely seriously." Indeed, it loves the privacy of the Indian poor so much that it wants to take it home to California. It takes their security so seriously that nowhere in the document does it ever mention, or try to refute, the facts everyone now knows about how completely Free Basics destroys it. Free Basics, by design, tracks all the web interactions of all users; Facebook instead says that it "receives and stores data on navigation information," hoping that won't sound like spying on everybody, which it is. They want us to know that they will store all the raw data from this spying not "beyond 90 days," which is a geological time period in the data-mining business. Because those users are overwhelmingly likely to be signed on to Facebook, WhatsApp or another FB-controlled service, all of that tracking data will be de-anonymized.

With the last 90 days of every user's total web traffic, de-anonymized, joined to the models built for those users by the analysis of all former periods, Facebook will know everything about those users' lives online. But because Facebook takes (destroying) your privacy so seriously, we are reassured, "we don't share any personally identifiable information with our content partners." In other words, Facebook keeps all the value of de-anonymizing the packets of millions of the Indian poor to themselves.

They take security so seriously that they can't discuss it at all in their "myth/fact" fabrication, because they don't even have enough half-truths to construct a bikini on this subject, let alone a real cover-up. When the rest of us use the HTTPS protocol to make secure web connection to a bank, government agency, or store, the way HTTPS works allows us to be sure that the party we are dealing with is authentically who they say they are. It also allows us to be sure that no one can intercept the secret content of our communication.

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

Free Basics by Facebook.com completely breaks the authentication function of HTTPS. It also partially breaks the basic security of the content exchanged by first decrypting it all at Facebook and then re-encrypting it for onward transmission to the intended recipient. Facebook says elsewhere that this de-secretized data exists only "momentarily" on its servers, which is not at all comforting, but is meant to sound like reassurance.

So even their propaganda makes our point: Free Basics is a scheme to get all the "navigational data" of millions of users, de-anonymize it, break their Web security in fundamentally unsafe ways, and call it helping the poor.

The regulators have a new reason to be wary. The most mythical statement in the whole Facebook fabrication is presented as a fact: "Neither Facebook nor its content partners pay the operators for the data people consume through Free Basics." According to Facebook, in other words, Reliance Communications is simply choosing to give away the privacy and security of the Free Basics users' packets to Facebook, without getting paid for it, and is really providing all the subsidized Internet service to the poor at its own expense. If this were true, it means that Reliance Communications and its larger competitors have made so much profit from data services in India that they could afford to provide basic subsidized services themselves. But why, if true, does Reliance Communications  need Facebook or India needs Facebook to provide spied-on services to the poor at all? Why does Facebook need, as it says, to collect all the navigation data "because it needs to determine what traffic can be delivered free of data charges" if it isn't paying for the traffic?

No doubt what Facebook really means is a half-truth: the opaque contractual provisions between Facebook and its partners, like those with other ISPs around the world, contain so many different interrelated business activities that the cross-payments between them for Free Basics traffic are perhaps hidden away in some other part of their relationship.

Back in July, a Committee of the Department of Telecommunications studied the effect of proposals like this, and gave what for Indian democracy is unquestionably the right answer. DoT stated that it is "of the firm opinion that content and application providers cannot be permitted to act as gatekeepers and use network operations to extract value, even if it is for an ostensible public purpose. Collaborations between [telecommunications service providers] and content providers that enable such gate-keeping role to be played by any entity should be actively discouraged." TRAI has also ordered for this initiative to be stopped.

The policy-makers of GoI got it right, and that should have been that. Now TRAI has issued a new consultation paper on differential pricing for data services. The comment period on the new consultation document ends December 30; news reports have indicated that Facebook may be auto-generating messages to TRAI on behalf of users, unbeknownst to them, in support of Free Basics-like "zero rating" to provide spied-on, insecure network access to the Indian poor. (If these reports turn out to be true, Facebook has apparently decided to abandon the position taken by Mark Zuckerberg in New Delhi that existing Internet users in India are an elite, less in touch than he with the needs of the Indian poor.) So this new propaganda campaign from Facebook conveniently creates a phony grass-roots campaign--a familiar practice in the US, known there as "astroturfing".


We must make one last public effort, therefore, to defeat this threadbare campaign by Facebook in support of its scam. Once again, we must all join together to let the regulators know we know they know what offensive nonsense all this is. Destroying the privacy and security of the poor is not a fair price to ask them to pay for subsidized basic Internet service.

The bad news is that we must engage this nonsense once again, all of us, to protect democracy and the Net against the strip-mining of Indians' privacy by a foreign corporate with only its own interests at heart. The good news is that one more push and they will surrender. Facebook has many other good ideas about how to work constructively with Indian civil society on expanding network access. It just needs to throw one really bad idea overboard, before it sinks the whole ship.

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