#FreeBasics: Beyond ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’

Why arguing that “it’s just about access to everyone” is myopic

If #FreeBasics has appeared on your radar this week — as it did mine —then it could be due to a couple of reasons:

  1. You’re more familiar, as I was, with Free Basic’s earlier title of Internet.org.
  2. One of your followers in tech has been paying attention to the consultation paper by India’s telecom regulator, TRAI and all the comments it’s been generating from other operators, academics, Net Neutrality activists and Indians concerned about the fate of their digital access.
One of a series of Free Basics ads in Indian dailies taken out by Facebook | Credit: Indian Express

Free Basics, as described on its own website, aims to make “the internet accessible to more people by providing them access to a range of free basic services like news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.”

It sounds noble, exciting, altruistic, especially when you take into account the fact that with a population of 1.3 billion, while 0.93 billion Indians were active mobile users, only 234 million were active internet users as of early this year.

The breakdown of India’s internet & mobile users. | Credit: We Are Social

Also, I’m Malaysian, so if there are two things I hold dear to my heart, they would definitely be (a) free things, and (b) the internet.

But then a further read past that paragraph mentions how Free Basics welcomes applications from developers who would like to share their service with these new, pure, untapped markets, and the definition of ‘the internet’ as per Zuckerberg shifts again.

What Free Basics is creating here is different from the internet you and I know — different from even the earlier incarnation my friend and colleague, Oliver Woods waxes so nostalgic in his case for Free Basics, with the unforgettable and never-missed squawk-squawk-hiss of dial-up internet.

Free Basics serves as a gateway app, allowing the user to access various services without paying for data. In order to do this, the user needs to have, firstly, a mobile phone and a contract with a provider. While the means of getting to Free Basics will not be entirely free, the Zuck underlines that what matters is that these people get their information free and now. In his Times of India op-ed, he uses important progressive keywords such as ‘healthcare’, ‘farming’, and ‘women’s rights’ repeatedly.

Good for you, Zuck.

I was a late adopter of the internet. My middle-class Malaysian family only signed up for dial-up in 2000, when I was already in secondary school. The speed was slow, and the time I spent on it often brief, due to how the landline needed to be freed up.

But the information I was exposed to on the internet changed my world, because my access was unfettered. I could as easily find out all the different symptoms of arsenic ingestion as I could Draco/Hermione fanfic. The wealth of information that we take for granted in our definition of the internet is starkly different from what Free Basics provides.

Should it gain the government support it looks likely to attain, Free Basics will serve as a gatekeeper to what can or cannot be accessed by over 700 million Indians. Who determines this access? Who determines what services are essential for the lower income classes, what information is necessary or not to them?

Prior to its suspension by TRAI, Free Basics India users could use Bing for free, but have to pay to access Google. This, in contrast to Zuckerberg’s claim that Free Basics “isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests”.

As outlined clearly in a joint statement by Indian Institute of Technology academics (and shared by Professor Bhaskaran Raman):

“Allowing a private entity

  • to define for Indian Internet users what is ‘basic’,
  • to control what content costs how much, and
  • to have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians

is a lethal combination which will lead to total lack of freedom on how Indians can use their own public utility, the Internet. Facebook’s ‘free basics’ proposal is such a lethal combination, having several deep flaws, beneath the veil of altruism wrapped around it in TV and other media advertisements… .”

It is important to note that as India’s tech scene stands, there are already several efforts in place to provide free internet to Indians, as pointed out by Nikhil Pahwa. As described by India-based futurist Justin Pickard, given sufficient support, India’s telco market is already geared towards providing free internet access as the next logical step to creating more business.

Even if the argument is, as the Zuck puts it, to kickstart the basics of access to necessary and relevant information for the people who need it most, the regulation of this information sets a dangerous precedent for India’s future digital natives. As someone who works in social media and digital advertising, I’m familiar with Facebook’s increasing (and clever, if self-immolating) monetisation and how it is dependent on access to users’ data. As someone who believes in freedom of information, it is difficult for me to see much freedom in Free Basics, and to not doubt that it will go the same way as Facebook — a formerly completely free platform which catered only to select demographics.

It may be, as Woods has claimed elsewhere, an academic argument, but is any free internet access to be lauded for the sake of it being there and being (ostensibly) free, future repercussions be damned? Or should we suffer time and tread with caution, to ensure that these to-be-converted users reap from the internet exactly the same benefits that we — digital natives who depend on the internet to a near-alarming degree — have reaped from the freedom to access everything the world wide web can offer?