PM Modi is smart and should see through Zuckerberg’s Free Basics plans: Mahesh Murthy, Co-Founder, Seedfund

Mahesh Murthy, co-founder, Seedfund, has been vocal about his support for Net Neutrality and how Free Basics proposed by Facebook will compromise the digital revolution in India. At a talk in the two-day IIT Entrepreneurship Summit 2016 that started on Saturday, Murthy voiced his fears and concerns.


Mahesh Murthy, co-founder, Seedfund, has been vocal about his support for Net Neutrality and how Free Basics proposed by Facebook will compromise the digital revolution in India. At a talk in the two-day IIT Entrepreneurship Summit 2016 that started on Saturday, Murthy voiced his fears and concerns.

PM Modi is seen as pro-industry. Do you think the government will take steps that will thwart internet growth?

The government should come out and say that carriers of wireless spectrum and airwaves cannot decide on its usage. We should not sign up a pact with Mark Zuckerberg. All that he is interested in is protecting and building his stock price. Around 400 years ago, we had a group of merchants who came to India thrice asking for exclusive access to the country and they were refused. When they were given access, they ruled us. Now they have come back to us in the form of Facebook.

The Modi government wants to be seen as pro-industry. But Facebook is not the internet. You can nudge your partners on Facebook, but you are not going to learn anything on Facebook. There have been talks that when Zuckerberg visited India, the government said, 'yeh khaali haath nahin jaayega'. The government, I have heard, will try a compromise by trying out for a year what Zuckerberg is seeking. The PM may not be educated, but he is smart and should see through Zuckerberg’s plans.

Why are you angry with Mark Zuckerberg?

I am not against him, but what he is proposing. When he talks of Free Basics, what is he proposing? He says that there are people in India who are too poor to afford the internet. BSNL offers internet packages of Rs 28 a month which works out to less than Re 1 a day. Facebook says that it will subsidise the internet and give free access to a few sites it decides, when you use Facebook. Zuckerberg is a tenacious man. He did the pappi-jhappi with Prime Minister Modi, who likes to be pampered and then pushed his agenda through. He brought the tiranga logo on FB which many used for their pictures. Then he spent Rs 400 crores on advertisements to tell us what Free Basics is and how it would help the poor in our country. Facebook says that it wants to do charity through Free Basics. We say then, don’t say only use Facebook.

What is your point of contention?

I am an activist for net neutrality. We are a ragtag team of activists who are pushing for net neutrality. Our point is, if you (private players) have private spectrum, go ahead with your plans. But government licences wireless spectrum and airwaves on terms and conditions. We, the activists are saying, since the spectrum belongs to the government, offer it to all without any conditions. What the carriers are saying is that, we are giving bandwidth but will decide what to do with it. If there is no net neutrality, each carrier will come with its own set of sites that will prevent the user from accessing other sites.

Net Neutrality is a very simple principle. For instance, you pay for the water supply that comes to your house through municipal pipes and use it the way you choose. If the authorities say to you tomorrow, if you use water to drink, we will charge you x, if you use it for tea, it will cost y but if you use it to bathe, it will cost you z. Would that be acceptable? You are paying for the usage, but the authorities cannot dictate how you will use it. This is the analogy I can think of when I talk of net neutrality.

Why do you say entrepreneurs should fight for net neutrality?

I am a capitalist who last year along with 40 like-thinking individuals came together to fight for net neutrality. The entire growth of the country is largely through the internet. If  Facebook or Google decide to dictate what sites we can use, there will be no learning at all. What Zuckerberg is proposing will mean that an entrepreneur with a start-up, for instance, will not be able to create his own website, because you have to get the telecom company to give you access for it. Is this really building India?

I would ask each one in the country to write, meet and talk to MPs and MLAs and get them to understand that Free Basics is Zuckerberg’s agenda that will go against the country.

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