Mark Zuckerberg and Mahesh Murthy both of you are wrong

The problem with the current debate on Free Basics of Facebook and net neutrality is that its contours are determined by biased parties.


By K Yatish Rajawat

The problem with the current debate on Free Basics of Facebook and net neutrality is that its contours are determined by biased parties. The challenge in this is that it curtails the discussion to issues which matter to the biased parties leaving the big picture and impact out. Each one has an axe to grind and they do not represent the will or choice of the people.

Let’s understand the contours or the parameters first, Mark Zuckerberg founder of Facebook wants to be the gatekeeper for internet. He has realized the potential that India has with its vast population offers. While, others see a digital have and have nots, he sees an opportunity. A opportunity to bring millions of Indian online in an interesting manner. His ambition is not limited to just adding numbers for Facebook, he wants to create an ecosystem of internet partners by offering them free to internet users. It’s not a new strategy, when valuation are derived from users and not revenues its best to get them on board even if you have to pay for their access. Bhatia of Hotmail.com used it well in the late 90’s by offering free emails to Indians and boosting his valuation several fold. It shows Zuckerberg’s ambition.

So Facebook’s Free Basics allows telecom operators to give free access to Facebook and its partners, a conditional access. Thatcreates precedence for differential charging of data for specific websites. Creating an access barriers for startups.

This is being argued by venture capitalist Mr Mahesh Murthy as against the tenets of net neutrality a concept that says the access for the internet should be the same for all.  The argument isTelecom Service Providers should not be allowed to have differential pricing for data usage for accessing different websites, applications or platforms.

Murthy says, “I'm a net neutrality activist …. we are a small group, working unpaid, taking breaks from our regular jobs, and we've always been happy to tell you anything at all you wanted to know.” As a venture capitalist investing he is also very interested in keeping a level playing field between a startup and a Facebook. So the lobby against Facebook is made up of Indian and foreign internet players, who either don’t have enough cash to burn for giving free access or do not want to do it.

So it’s become a Facebook versus all the other internet players in India. The arbiter, referee and the regulator here is Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, a telecom regulator as free access is provided by telecom operator. TRAI in its infinite wisdom has issued a consultative paper and list of questions for citizens.

In regulatory speak the paper outlines the issue which would be impossible for a common man to understand. As not only is it written in legalese but it uses terms that only the internet industry understands. The questions that it has asked citizens to answer look like they have been drafted by a committee and cannot be understood.

For instance, to explain, where the TRAI derives its power, read this sample of explanation. “Non-discrimination” as defined in Clause 2(k) of the TTO is that service provider shall not, in the matter of application of tariffs, discriminate between subscribers of the same class and such classification of subscriber shall not be arbitrary. Clause 10 of the TTO provides that no service provider shall, in any manner, discriminate between subscribers of the same class and such classification of subscribers shall not be arbitrary. The provisions of TTO (33rd Amendment) inter alia provides that whenever differential tariffs are offered, it shall be the responsibility of the operators to define in a transparent and unambiguous manner, the eligibility criteria for availing such differential tariff. The Authority would consider such criteria to assess their consistency with the provisions of TTO relating to the non-arbitrary classification of subscribers.”

This section says that tariffs including zero tariffs cannot discriminate and if they do then TRAI has the power to step in to correct. But it loses readers in the first sentence itself.

Therefore, the survey by TRAI has got nixed with Facebook submitting its own version of citizen data. The most important question that TRAI asked was this :  Is there any other issue that should be considered in the present consultation on differential pricing for data services?

This is the question which captures the enormity of this debate and takes the issue beyond the biases. While the proponents of ‘Open Internet’ believe that the internet should be non-discriminatory and all websites should get the same access.

This is not the reality today, Internet has to be seen like any other large media platform and it needs its own regulation and control. When companies like Facebook that run a walled garden on the Internet talks about ‘Open Internet’ it is funny. Or when a payment site or e-commerce site or micro-blogging site uses the tenets of ‘Open Internet’ its not even funny it is ridiculous, hypocritical and insults the intelligence of this country.

Trolls, abuses, pornography, ISIS, terrorists, and a distracted generation is what has come out from following the ‘ Open Internet’ policy.

The most important first, neuroscientists have shown that the digital generation is a distracted one. Due to the millions of distractions there capability to focus and function is getting reduced. Does Digital India, that promises free wifi wants to create a digitally distracted generation.

One that is addicted to video feeds, likes, shopping and pornography. Will the government of any country able to forgive itself if in the name of Free Internet, Free Wifi it creates a generation like this.

Therefore the answer to the question that TRAI has asked about differential pricing is yes. For content that is of value, useful and appropriate for the coming generation should be charge differently. Other content can be commercially charged.

Net neutrality does not mean that all kinds of apps, platforms or websites should have the same access rights when the government is offering free internet. We have a case study for it Doordarshan gives a free Dish does it allows all kind of content. NO.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Mahesh Murthy have to revise their definition of open Internet and Net neutrality to take into account the future of internet access.

K Yatish Rajawat is a policy commentator and Digital Strategist based in New Delhi , he tweets @yatishrajawat

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