It’s unfortunate that the discourse on the apparent rise of social media has made these networks believe they are indispensable. People have existed before Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Sure, they’ve changed, hastened the way we meet, greet and interact with others. Moreover, services such as these have enabled us to discover new people. Many of us have even found loved ones and newer opportunities through them.
But all said and done, when once these grow into a large giant, and evolve from being a garage or dorm project to a start-up to a corporation, then they are inevitably gazed through the lens of corporations. And it wouldn’t entirely be a cliché to refer to corporations as evil, would it?
Let’s not mix a noble cause and a business plan.
We’ve repeatedly attacked the idea of internet.org, and spoken about Net Neutrality. Although folks and volunteers who have created SaveTheInternet have done a commendable job, it would be unfair to reduce the movement to protect the net neutrality movement to the few individuals (not to take away the credit due to them).
But the unfortunate problem in India is the Facebook generation! Many aren’t aware of the net neutrality debate, or the cause and why it is important. The overall idea is if someone wants to give people free internet, and in the process earns something from us, is that a big deal?
Here’s why this isn’t the first time ‘free’ internet is offered!
You’d probably remember a decade ago, there were several services that have offered free internet. The most readily available is Wikipedia. And it’s interesting how the world didn’t go hammer and tongs about how evil Wikipedia was. Wikipedia is the primary source of information for most of the online population. Purists may ridicule it for being unverified, but simply put; it’s the best of what connected intelligence can offer. It’s the best that can be gotten for the cheapest. Mobile operator Aircel has even offered free internet to new users. Idea has a popular campaign of being able to share internet plans with another user. What an idea, we’d say, at the risk of using their buzzword from the marketing campaign they’re running.
Purists, activists clearly don’t have a problem with the word free. If it genuinely results in the furtherance of information and the betterment of society, and grants access to those who aren’t privileged, then there is absolute support and adoption. Even Google for that matter, is working on free internet with Project Loon and its free Wi-Fi project for railway stations spread across India. Citizens welcomed it.
What suddenly changed when Facebook embarked on a free internet project?
The problem with Facebook is that a large corporation is now on the verge of influencing policy. And the large corporation has inroads into our lives. We aren’t even touching on the freedom part here, but the influence goes all the way to the structure of your phone bills. Or the way you pay for data. To many, that seems unfair. It’s like a bunch of animation characters appearing on TV, suddenly influence your kids to buy a code to watch cartoons on TV. They’re innocent, they’re enjoyable. But suddenly influencing the way you spend your money, and you aren’t happy about it. And of course, even the underprivileged kids in the rich and poor countries across the globe deserve to have access to their favourite cartoons. But it’s a question of priority. May be skill development is of greater importance than watching animation. If that’s easier to understand, why isn’t a barebones internet so difficult to understand?
When was the last time someone doing a supposedly noble cause spent millions of dollars on advocacy? Or carried mainstream advertising campaigns across newspapers, and TV and claimed the homepage of YouTube? All at once? That’s where many have a problem.
How is it that the bare minimum of questions asked during Facebook townhalls broadcasted every touched borderline critical of Facebook? May be that’s an area Zuckerberg could learn from PM Modi. Despite facing vehement opposition on multiple fronts, he has kept the dialogue with the communication peg of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas.’ Simplistically, it could be translated to collective development, or inclusive development. And any effort on the lines of what Facebook aims to accomplish ought to be inclusive. And needs to be unconditional. Because a charity organisation doesn’t put conditions on the help they render.
We’d rather prefer it if Facebook was upfront of the 'need to help' the unfortunate. In a practical sense, may be curbing it at 100MB per month. And you qualify only if you fall within the definition of poverty, or lower income groups. The larger group comprising those of us who could afford broadband services, would happily help spread the resultant videos Facebook would eventually make around the impact it made on society at large.
The same effective PR machinery could create those videos, and spread them with a similar budget allocated to them, yet it would all make perfect business sense. Every business has the right to succeed including Facebook. The people would be happy, impacted, helped and Facebook gets returns as well. Net neutrality wouldn’t be such a huge and raging debate. It's a win-win.
However, society would be uplifted if they focussed on learning new skills, and working hard to be able to afford access to the Internet. I only wonder if people get tired of opposing Free Basics. Because Facebook has more money to spend than the reducing attention span of our generation!