FREEBASICS: A free ride with consequences

In early February of 2015, Facebook launched a project called Internet.org (now called Freebasics) in partnership with Reliance communications. The idea, as claimed by Facebook, was to bring free basic mobile internet to a huge group of smart phone users in India. However, there was a catch. You had to have a Reliance mobile connection to use the internet.org app. You could then browse 38 different websites for free using the app. Airtel had a similar plan — called “Zero Rating” in most countries, according to which an airtel user would not be charged anything if the user used certain apps. For example , you could use Flipkart app for free if Flipkart had a tie up with Airtel. Flipkart would pay Airtel for the data consumed by airtel users , thus enabling airtel users to browse its app for free.


The Problem with Freebasics(Internet.org) / zero rating

Although the end user did not get charged for using certain apps, it was like a walled garden. Only the richer app developers were able to provide their service for free as the newer ones could not afford it. This in turn eliminated constructive competition and curbed innovation and moved towards a more monopolized system where the rich got richer and the poor had no say.

Zuckerberg and the telcos claimed that this would help bring online a huge number of people in India who had not yet been introduced to the Internet. But in reality, this meant letting the telcos and Facebook be the gatekeepers to “the single most important development in the history of human communication”- The Internet.

The telcos claimed that it was not a walled garden and that the user could experience the rest of the web after having paid for it. But why would a person, who could not afford mobile data in the first place, want to see the rest of the web? The user would only be exposed to a limited web, the web that the Telcos and Facebook wanted them to see. It is like you are letting someone in a library but denying him access to all the books, and letting him read the book which you want him to read.

This was a complete violation of net neutrality to its core. Thanks to the efforts of the team behind savetheinternet.in and the one million emails sent to the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) in support of net neutrality earlier this year, we have kept the debate going on.

After facing heavy criticism, some of the big names like Flipkart, Cleartrip, NDTV, News hunt and the Times Group stepped away from Facebooks internet.org/Freebasics citing reasons of violation of net neutrality. Cleartrip clarified further by explaining why they were wrong by supporting internet.org in their blog.

Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World wide web expressed his concerns for Net Neutrality as “consumers should just say no to initiatives such as Facebook’s Free Basics (formerly known as Internet.org) because programs like that are not the full internet.”

Mishi Choudhary, executive director of SFLC.in said that “Free Basics by Facebook.com offers Indians the right to send all their traffic, tied to their personal identifying data, through Facebook servers, thus allowing Facebook to spy on all the Internet traffic of tens of millions of Indian consumers.”

She explains along with Eben Moglen, professor of law and legal history at Columbia University in this wonderful article “Fictional internet policy is bad for India, good only for Facebook”.


The On-going situation

A few months later, in late september of this year, Facebook introduced their internet.org program as Freebasics which was basically the same wine in a new bottle . Only this time , with a bit of tinkering. Basically, Facebook decided to come back with a product which was rejected before by the public.

Also, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) recently issued another consultation paper in December 2015. This time, it was about differential pricing — services like Airtel Zero and Freebasics. This led Facebook to make a dying attempt to save its freebasics program, by campaigning for it on their website. Things became favourable for facebook when they came forward with their concerns about the poor and needy and asked its users to sign an email to TRAI showing support for freebasics.

Facebook also started advertising in leading newspapers, billboards, metro stations and even whatsapp messages asking people to “save” FreeBasics.

But in reality, many of us were misinformed about Facebook’s latest tool — Freebasics and failed to realize that even after a few changes to its internet.org program, Freebasics still violated the principles of net neutrality.

Desperate measures — Why we think this incident is the worst that has happened since internet.org :

On the 18th of December Facebook went a step further by conning its users into signing the #FreeBasics petition on its website facebook.com. Facebook made its users sign up immediately as they scrolled down the page only to read the entire text. Numerous people on twitter raised their concern with Facebook stating that they got auto signed when they visited the petition on the website by simply scrolling down to the bottom of the page. One of the user’s complained that he received an email from his dead uncle’s facebook account explaining why he thinks free basics might be good for him.

Facebook of course casually brushed it off aside saying it could be a simple error on the user side.

On 22nd December Facebook switched on notifications to its US and UK users asking them to support Freebasics and writing to TRAI… by mistake of course.

Our evidence

Let’s not forget that by asking facebook users to send emails to TRAI, facebook is treading into matters of Indian governance. We are literally allowing a foreign company to influence India’s decision on policy making.


Why we think we Indians should not fall for it

1) Facebook supports Net neutrality in the US but violates it in India.

2) By campaigning and asking Indian users to save Freebasics and signing an email to TRAI, Facebook is trying to influence Indian policies which is completely unethical.

3) The fact that nothing comes for FREE. Google’s Sundar Pichai himself did not deny the fact that they will look to gain revenue from the “free wifi” they are planning to install in the 100 railways stations across India. (Scroll down to the last paragraph of the article hyperlinked)

4) Facebook sends and receives all data of its free basics users through its servers. Would you ever trust a corporate company like Facebook, which has time and again, been accused of spying on its own users, sometimes even those who aren’t on Facebook to handle your data ?

5) There are lot more ways to provide free internet to those who cannot afford it without violating net neutrality.

So lets not let Mark Zuckerberg and the Telcos. decide what we see on the internet. Lets not let them be the gate keepers to “the single most important development in the history of human communication” — The Internet. Lets take our internet BACK!

TRAI wants your comments before December 30, 2015. Please read and sign this if you support Net Neutrality in India: http://www.savetheinternet.in/

Also , if you have been misrepresented by facebook, follow this link : http://blog.savetheinternet.in/if-youve-been-misled-by-facebook/


Here are a few more links which will make you think twice before you vote for Freebasics.

Facebook pushing users to support Free Basics, creates controversy: http://techcrunch.com/2015/12/17/save-free-basics/

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/facebooks-save-free-basics-campaign-draws-flak-for-being-misleading-and-exploiting/articleshow/50226052.cms

To all those who think that Zero rating is allowed in US &EU, this ones for you.

https://www.accessnow.org/rekindling-net-neutrality-our-meeting-with-eus-telecoms-regulators/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/12/17/regulators-want-to-talk-to-att-comcast-and-t-mobile-about-sponsored-data/

A statement from savetheinternet.in stating other alternatives to provide free internet: http://blog.savetheinternet.in/response-to-facebook-townhall/

This ones for airtel zero rating. Data consumption is growing faster than data subscribers: https://www.instamojo.com/medianama/mobile-internet-in-india-september-2015/

Are telecom operators really losing money because of the Internet? :https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1_Ql2qgMJEmB-wiFZ6eO-Rh9AXaRGLeRLQnd7Bb76dQU/edit#slide=id.ga43db4c83_0_49

To all those who think Zuckerberg is donating 99% of his wealth, some might not agree: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/business/dealbook/how-mark-zuckerbergs-altruism-helps-himself.html?ref=dealbook&_r=0


Dear Mark , we love Facebook and we do want to trust you. But we do not understand your sense of philanthropy when you can turn your face away from critical issues that actually plague our country and find logic in providing “so called” free internet by violating net neutrality.

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