A little bit neutral

Net neutrality has a new battleground.

“A country of contrasts . . .” — standard guide book cliche for India.

One such contrast has been thrown into sharp relief by recent controversy. India has some of the poorest people in the world. It is also home to some of the world’s most technologically savvy people. And thus one day third world focused philanthropy found itself clashing with first world tech expectations.

Let me back up and lay out the facts.

A couple of years ago Facebook launched a venture called “Internet.org” with the goal of bringing internet to the digitally disadvantaged. Internet.org provides free but restricted mobile internet access in several countries, presumably to people who could otherwise not afford it. Internet.org launched successfully in several countries with under-developed connectivity. Sometime in 2015 it launched in India and there it hit an unexpected roadblock. India has low internet penetration, only about 20% of the population is online. A different way of looking at the same statistic is that India has the third highest number of internet users (behind China and the U.S.); somewhere between 240 to 300 million people online. And it turned out that some of them had strong concerns about the nature of Facebook’s new program.

“Internet.org is neither the internet, nor a dot org.”

Facebook had partnered with a mobile service provider to provide unlimited free access to a pre-selected set of websites from non-smart (feature) phones. The websites needed to be low bandwidth, so no videos or hi-res images. All traffic was proxied through Facebook, so in theory Facebook could monitor everything a user browses. In short, it was about as complete a violation as possible of that sacred internet principle — net neutrality. And the (Indian) internet exploded in rage. Facing the risk of complete failure in India, Internet.org went through a major overhaul. To Facebook’s credit they took real steps to address the criticism. The service was opened up to any website that wanted to participate as long as it met the technical specifications (in practice this entails creating a whole new version of the site). Some additional security was added (keeping your data private from all except Facebook). Finally, the service was re-branded to “Free Basics” to address concerns about false advertising. Here it should have ended, and the critics mollified. But it did not. The criticism only got more strident, the opposition more organized. The government asked for the service to be suspended while it develops a set of net neutrality guidelines. How did that happen?

Such intense pitched battles ostensibly about matters of “principle” usually boil down to something far more basic— trust. Or rather, the lack of it. The net neutrality battle in the U.S. centered around consumer distrust of the cable companies. Indians, similarly, feel Facebook is being disingenuous.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one mistrusts Facebook more than users of Facebook. And there are a lot of Facebook users in India.

First let’s look at motive. Facebook touts Internet.org as an act of pure philanthropy. Yet it is obvious that Facebook stands to profit from such a scheme. Maybe not today, but in a future where Internet.org is the on ramp to the internet for a whole generation. And so Facebook’s claims of altruism are met with cynical jeers. Now, that cynicism is unfair. But to know this you would need to really understand Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley embodies the “win, win” attitude. Here the idea that you can focus on making the world a better place and come out filthy rich yourself isn’t laughed off as a fantasy; it’s a viable business plan. Maybe it is all the techies who became millionaires at 22 off of their college project — people who succeeded wildly at the first thing they attempted and never learned cynicism at the school of hard knocks. Maybe it is the idealistic techie liberals and their guilt at being so much wealthier than the idealistic liberals who went into liberal arts —eager to prove that STEM degree was really all in pursuit of a higher calling. Whichever it is, this attitude is nearly universal in the entire tech industry (Silicon Valley being more a mindset than a geographical location). It’s why some people find today’s tech world so endearing. And others find it insufferable. The majority, though, simply don’t buy it. And thus the cynicism in India; understandable and yet unfair.

“Requests for comments by the Telecom Regulatory Authority are not online polls” — exasperated chief of said agency.

Then there is the matter of tactics. Tech activists claim that Facebook has gone all out in its lobbying effort for Free Basics. When the Indian Prime Minister visited the United States this year, he was invited to Facebook where he did a town hall style Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg. Given the high level of corruption in Indian politics and administration, activists are understandably uneasy to see their well funded adversary cozying up to the people making the rules. They accuse Facebook of using its considerable resources to force Free Basics on India — billboards, newspaper ads, biased opinion polls (useless, since most people are not aware of the nuances of the topic) and campaigns to rally sympathetic users to the cause. The last backfired somewhat — apparently Facebook prompted users to write to the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) supporting Free Basics. TRAI is the agency that told the telecom providers to suspend the service temporarily, and as part of their deliberations, had a period of public comments. Turns out a million users clicking on “I support Free Basics” isn’t what they had in mind. TRAI has now asked Facebook to contact those users who clicked on the Facebook ad and solicit their opinion on the individual technical issues involved. This isn’t going to end well.

“If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.” — Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.

And now we come to the actual merits of the case. What is net neutrality? It is simply the notion that how you get your internet should not affect what internet you get. Whether your connection is provided by Comcast or SonicNet, you should have access to all the websites out there and the quality of your experience with the website should depend only on the speed of the connection you are paying for. Now, keep in mind that this is the current state of affairs and has been from the beginning of the Internet. Concerns about net neutrality in the US started to emerge mainly because of two practical factors. In many parts of the country people do not have more than one or two options for internet at home; tough luck if you don’t like your internet provider. Additionally, many of the internet operators have vested interests that can conflict with their customers. Take Comcast for instance — Comcast provides both internet as well as cable TV. They also own NBC. So their interests may be at odds with a customer who wants to cancel cable and get all her entertainment from internet streaming. What if Comcast chose to fool around with her internet connection to interfere with that streaming? This isn’t a theoretical concern; you can find graphs online of Netflix connections slowing down on Comcast while the two were in ‘negotiations’ and speeding up once Netflix gave in. I am leaving out a lot of nuance but the main thrust is that these practical concerns are very specific to the U.S. wire-to-the-home market. Other countries may not have cable monopolies to worry about. Even in the US many are not concerned about wireless (i.e. mobile) because there is more competition and the barrier to entry is lower.

So besides U.S. specific practical concerns of slow Netflix, what is net neutrality about? It’s about giving all websites a fair shot at getting an audience. Customers should be able to choose the streaming service with the most content, not be forced to use the one owned by their cable company. Google and DuckDuckGo should be able to compete on the basis of who has the better search engine, not who has an exclusive deal with AT&T. Again, there’s nuance here — search for ‘peering’ if you’re curious. But there’s no denying where the web companies stand. They have been unanimously demanding that the U.S. government pass regulations to preemptively prevent “last mile” discrimination by internet providers.

Yet you can see how Facebook might find itself on opposite sides of this debate in different markets. The practical concerns in play in the U.S. don’t apply in India. There is no monopoly in wireless internet access; the same provider that provides Free Basics will happily upgrade you to the full fledged internet if you are willing to pay. Besides, the service is free… how can you complain about what you’re getting for free?

The less tangible concerns still remain though. What if Free Basics is super successful? Does it become the new internet? In its present form, definitely not. Aesthetically it is far too limited an experience for all but a niche market. But could it change as its audience grows, to a low cost service with full resolution graphics and ads but only a limited number of Facebook-approved sites? Even if you aren’t a paranoid Facebook hater, you can see how that would happen. Markets evolve and they tend to evolve in directions set by consumer expectations, which are themselves set by consumer experience. Facebook may not go in that direction, but what stops the telecoms from going there? Reliance launches Free Basics and Airtel launches “Low Cost Much More Fun Basics” to compete.

And here we come to the crux of the opposition. Note that the harshest critics of Free Basics are Indian tech entrepreneurs. If you listen carefully, what they are saying is “This is our country, we get to choose how our internet market develops. Stop trying to shape our market. Hands off.” Americans interacting with countries like China and India don’t appreciate the weight of the colonial baggage they are dealing with. Self proclaimed keepers of the free world, they don’t understand that these former colonies see America as inheriting the colonial mantle of Western Europe. A new imperialism, economic rather than military, with corporations leading the charge. And so the anger with Facebook is not just the anger of app developers having to build a ‘lite’ version of their website. It is also pent up anger against the massacre of 1919 and whites-only clubs in British India. It is the frustration felt by a nation that sees herself the equal of any western power, only to have the western powers define her by her weaknesses. It is the battle cry of a robust, thriving industry … an industry which started out as the back office for American firms but has morphed into an innovative and entrepreneurial powerhouse, created a lucrative local market and nurses global ambitions.

And so perhaps, it would be best if Facebook left the Indian internet to the Indians.