On Free Basics.
India </3 Facebook
Not everything is roses in Facebook’s garden. The company’s initiative to push Internet.org in India is facing a major shakedown. From politics to academia, country’s influencers are criticizing the renamed Free Basic on the basis of its content and Facebook’s underlining motivation for it.
The ideia of the service is to offer every user a free internet access to certain content, as weather and health information. This would enable a whole new world of people to become internet natives and improve their quality of life by doing so.
As someone who traveled across India recently, I cannot begin to stress the impact a service like Free Basic would have in the life of many of the lower strata people I had a chance to meet. For them, it can save precious income for other essential goods, as food or hygiene products, for example. [Yes, I called Internet an essential good.]
Still, critics of Free Basics have a certain point in their hate motives. To start, Facebook will control the contents that will make part of the portal. This creates at least two issues: Facebook, an American Company, will be the one deciding what is an essential service for Indian users; additionally, it will create a preferred channel for the Basic contents over others, hurting the net neutrality desirable principle for Internet access.
A second question raised is the possibility of Facebook end up inserting ads in the service, monetizing what is now being sold as a tool to improve people’s lives.
In its basis, this is a problem of shape versus content.
While it is desirable to enable Internet access to a great portion of population, to foment social and economic development, should it be introduced at all costs? Many of the Free Basic users will not understand the implications of having a information gatekeeper as Facebook, in the neutrality of Internet access and in the prices of complementary communication products.
On the other side, even if Free Basics is indeed a scheme to show ads to millions of Indian citizens, is it in the authorities rights to take that away from them? Once again, the distance Indian elites have from the everyday reality lived by “regular” people, has made them take a position they wouldn’t if, for example, they were missing Internet access in their daily life.
If I know how things work in India (and at this point, I have a pretty good idea how business in India goes), this is my guess on what will happen next: the service will indeed reach the market, after a battery of authorities having their take on the initiative; the final product will be a distorted version of what Free Basics is presently — some of the questions worrying the critics will be neutralized, ultimately reducing the benefit brought by the service.
The atitude of hostility towards outside companies may have hurt the country in other occasions; still, Indians generally dislike to have rules imposed to them by outsiders. Facebook will have to learn to play by their rules.