How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program
The inside story of Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to gift data to a skeptical subcontinent.
If you wanted to get a glimpse of how hard Facebook can fight when pressed against the wall — a hint of its war chest, the scope of its ambition to access and connect the developing world — take a drive around Mumbai, India’s financial capital, as 2015 turned into 2016.
Everywhere: the billboards. Along the freeway under the smoggy haze. Emblazoned on bus stops — “A Billion Reasons to Support Digital Equality” and an image of an outmoded cellphone. On a busy shopping street, a sign reading “A First Step Towards Digital Equality,” picturing two young women in saris, chatting while looking at a cellphone. The ads ran for two weeks in six cities.
Also everywhere: the newspaper ads, full-page ads — double full-page ads! — featuring Indian farmers and henna-adorned hands and stories of Facebook allowing unconnected people to go online. A full-page op-ed in the Times of India by Mark Zuckerberg himself, in which he asked, “Who could possibly be against this?”
The campaign was to save Free Basics, a Facebook program that gives access to a limited number of websites — including, of course, Facebook — free of charge in 37 developing countries and counting. As of a year ago, Facebook’s telecom partner Reliance Communications allowed mobile subscribers in India to surf sites pre-approved by Facebook without needing a data plan. It’s a central tenet of Internet.org, the division of Facebook charged with connecting the entire world to the internet, and a key part of Zuckerberg’s intended legacy. It’s also Facebook’s entry into Silicon Valley’s good-for-us, good-for-the-world brand of philanthropy, and another way to compete with Microsoft (hooking up developing countries with internet via solar panels and grants), Google (with Project Loon balloons) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (with satellites).
Facebook’s ads focus on the program “to connect India,” where only 20 percent of people are online, and about 30 percent have cell phones. (I found it also helps cost-conscious people who were already online save a few hundred rupees on data each month.) Absent from the ads, but also acknowledged by the company, is the fact that Free Basics helps Facebook, by funneling the next billion users towards its lucrative social network. (Users don’t have to create a Facebook account to access the rest of Free Basics, but Facebook is the first selection on the list. Facebook Messenger is also included in the offerings.)
So who could possibly be against this?
The net neutrality watchdogs. Free Basics only serves a tiny Facebook-endorsed portion of the Internet to users for free — a “walled garden” as opponents call it — while users must pay to access anything else on the web. As Backchannel has been chronicling for some time, they see it as a violation of the principle of net neutrality, that all things on the internet should be treated the same to preserve competition: no faster data connection for deep-pocketed companies, no charging consumers for some sites but not others, no cordoning off slices of the internet by private companies.
In December, a year after Free Basics launched in India, telecom regulators ordered Facebook’s Indian telecom partner to halt the nationwide rollout until they could decide how to police differential pricing, or charging different prices for different internet data — with Free Basics clearly implicated. (Press reports allege Free Basics has continued running, and the CEO of Babajob, one of the services included on the site, told me on January 28: “We still have users coming in.”) The regulators then offered Indians an opportunity to voice their opinion on the issue throughout January, promising a decision by the end of January that still hasn’t come but is expected in a week’s time. Yet leaks of the ruling have surfaced in recent days — and it appears Facebook will come out on the losing end.
To see how important this battle is to the company, with a possible domino effect across the other countries where Free Basics is offered, you only need to have witnessed how hard Facebook fought.
That brings us to the billboard bonanza: Facebook wasn’t leaving access to the world’s second largest home of potential web users (and the biggest for Facebook, since it’s banned in China) to chance — especially when it could cause a domino effect across other countries. Even before the latest dustup, Facebook had been stocking up goodwill with the country, meeting with Indian startups and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an advocate of tech-centric initiatives. Since the December blowup, Zuckerberg has phoned key critics within India’s startup scene, and Facebook reps have been lobbying stakeholders in the capital of Delhi. Facebook paints opponents as elite scrooges stuck on “extreme” net neutrality principles, “even,” as Zuckerberg’s op-ed reads, “if it means leaving a billion people behind.” In December, Facebook launched a petition on the social network itself, asking users to support “digital equality,” the signatures of which were forwarded to regulators.
One regulator blasted the petition, calling it “a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.” (The regulators wanted people to pen answers to four policy questions on differential pricing, not engage in clicktivism.) Many Indians were turned off by the ad campaign, which one press report estimated at $44 million — a conjecture that one Facebook rep called “way, way, blown-out-of-proportion high.”
Netizens have come back at Facebook with parody ads, John Oliver-esque PSAs, critical tweets from prominent Indian tech figures, and a deluge of their own letters to the regulators. Organizing the opposition movement has been a loose collective called SaveTheInternet.in, which has been wrangling the savvy Indian tech and startup scene to argue that this hurts not only net neutrality, but them.
That’s because at a time when Indian companies are emerging to compete with Silicon Valley, Free Basics lets one company decide what a swath of internet users get to see, making it harder for a little guy to be discovered in the internet wilds if they don’t join Free Basics. “Facebook is spending a lot of money on the billboards and the ads and the Modi hugging,” says Hey, Neighbor! founder Aravind Ravi-Sulekha, based in Bangalore. “Facebook says ‘we’re not a danger, we haven’t stifled the startup ecosystem yet.’ But they’re not very successful yet [in India]. I’m pretty sure Facebook, with their hacker culture, will figure it out, and at that point, it will be too late to stop them.”
Who’s right? Both sides proclaim they’re on the side of justice. So on the 11th hour of the decision, Backchannel headed to the Silicon Valley of India to better understand the stakes.
For Sean Blagsvedt, Free Basics was a clear fit. He founded Babajob in 2007 after breaking off from Microsoft Research, the company that first brought the Californian to Bangalore. Babajob is a Craigslist of employment ads for workers in the lower end of the wage pyramid (beauticians, electricians, cooks), overlapping with the intended audience of Facebook’s new program.
I go to see the CEO at his office downtown Bangalore, where his dog, Berlin, trots past conference rooms with goofy names like Bouncy Castle and The Mystery Spot — a nod to Blagsvedt’s adolescence in Santa Cruz, California. He heads out to the porch five stories up, overlooking a park with the Indian green-and-orange flag waving over the treetops, and explains the road to becoming one of Free Basics’ few techie allies who isn’t particularly shy about it.
Facebook first approached him in July 2014, he says, months before Free Basics — then called Internet.org — would launch in India, to see if he’d like to be part of the offerings. The Facebook reps said that job sites like his in Africa had reaped significant numbers of new users from being part of Internet.org Free Basics, and he joined.
To date, the number of workers who have registered on Babajob from Free Basics — still carried by just one telecom carrier, and in six of 29 Indian states — number only in the tens of thousands. “To be frank, it’s probably lower than we would have hoped,” Blagsvedt says. “I do feel like it’s a premature fight. We’re talking about something in its potential for future benefit, and potential for future harm. We’re not talking about something ubiquitous or common yet.”
Joining Internet.org was easy enough. Sites don’t pay to be included, and Babajob already had a lightweight site in line with Facebook’s technical requirements to work on cheaper phones and 2g and 3g internet connections. But even before it launched in India, Internet.org became mired in controversy. Opponents were mostly annoyed by the fact that Facebook was choosing who was on the service. Free Basics offered Bing, not Google. It delivered the BBC News, Wikipedia, and Reuters Market Lite. AccuWeather for the forecast. The version of Facebook that runs on Free Basics doesn’t have ads, and the company says it exchanges no money with its telecom partners, who absorb the cost of the free data.
But Indian critics grew louder, and several startups who’d initially signed up ditched Free Basics before it even launched. Only the country’s fourth largest and cheapest carrier, Reliance Communications, partnered to offer the service. In April, Blagsvedt wrote an op-ed defending his decision as a way to connect people who need jobs in a country with only 20 percent internet penetration.
Behind the scenes, though, Blagsvedt, with the air of a breezy California idealist about him, didn’t like the fact that Facebook selected the sites, even if he was one of them. “Who’s to say Babajob is a better site than any other job site?” he says. Zuckerberg announced in May that Internet.org would be open to any application that met their technical specifications, but for Blagsvedt, the rollout wasn’t going fast enough.
Blagsvedt says Facebook contacted him last August to set up a phone call with Zuck himself, what he assumed was one of many such calls to participating companies to get feedback and tell them what’s coming up. Getting him on the line, Blagsvedt told Zuckerberg to hurry up the process of opening the platform. “I think my exact words were that it would be very difficult for Babajob to stay if the platform were not opened to others,” Blagsvedt writes me later in an email.
So did Zuckerberg push back? “No,” says Blagsvedt. “He said great, we’ll do it.” The feature went live in September, and Internet.org got rebranded as simply Free Basics. (Critics had charged that the name Internet.org was misleading, being neither a charity nor the entire internet). The 30-plus sites included at launch grew to more than 130 by December, including an anti-domestic violence site, an English-learning site, and the random, personal blog of a dude named Raj Rami, who posts pics of his friends hanging out.
Facebook says it’s never rejected an application that met its specifications, and Internet.org VP Chris Daniels calls the speculation from critics that it wouldn’t let on competitors “bull.” “We [would be] happy to have Google or Twitter join Free Basics, because the more services available, the better the user experience for people coming online for the first time.” Google was, in fact, offered on the initial trial of Internet.org in Zambia, but in January it pulled out, only saying in an emailed statement to Backchannel that "Google is not a partner in Free Basics or Internet.org,” but not giving reasons why.
“I would love to see all the ink spilled on Free Basics turned into, why don’t we have wifi hotspots sponsored by the government?” says Blagsvedt. “Why don’t we have a huge initiative to make it easier for publishers to make content in indigenous languages? How can we get the elderly, women, and rural on the internet?” Instead, the debate has become fixated on Facebook.
Since launching in its earliest form five years ago, the mission of Free Basics crept from a new user acquisition tool in the developing world to a philanthropic endeavor (BuzzFeed News published an excellent blow-by-blow history) with Zuckerberg playing the role of evangelizing statesman. I ask Blagsvedt if he thinks Zuckerberg — whom he’s talked to twice, chatting with him briefly again last fall while Zuckerberg was in the country — is a true believer in his connect-the-world credo.
“So, in that sense, I trust Mark Zuckerberg,” Blagsvedt replied. “At this point, he has all the money he needs. I think it now comes down to what’s the rest of his legacy that he gave to the world before he died? I think he’d really like to say he got 3 billion people online.”
Blagsvedt isn’t the only tech figure who defends Free Basics, but he is one of the few who will be open in the press about it. I did find another supporter among the Indian startup founders offering their sites on Free Basics. Over drinks at a rooftop bar in Bangalore, he argued that some internet is better than none at all. Yet he shirked from having his name published because, with so many in the tech community against this, he had to think about the future of his fledgling startup.
Supporting Free Basics in the Indian tech world has become that unpopular.
An army of critics has been petitioning, protesting, tweeting and op-eding its dissent over the past weeks, playing digital David to one very rich Goliath. As the saying goes, don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. Yet Facebook has done just that, by pissing off India’s technorati. Free Basics is not an idle concern to its opponents: if the program were your only taste of the internet (Facebook says that’s only true for five percent of users), you likely wouldn’t have gotten wind of the counterarguments at all.
A central contention of the startups — 457 companies signed a single letter opposing Free Basics, more than 800 founders put their names on a letter to Modi last week — is that the program creates a bottleneck to web access at the very moment when Indian startups are taking off. Over the last five years, India has morphed from the world’s back-end IT house to a venture capital-flush startup scene with Silicon Valley-sized ambition. Ola Cabs boasts of beating Uber for the cab aggregator market, and Flipkart is neck-and-neck with Amazon — and increasingly, entrepreneurs are shying away from launching a carbon copy of U.S. companies in favor of creating Indian-specific solutions. Adding to the optimism, observers say the country is on the cusp of greater breakthroughs, given Modi’s Start Up and Digital India initiatives, and the development of the “India Stack” — a made-in-India public API including a national digital identity database and e-payment system that any startup can build upon.
While cabs and e-commerce don’t target the intended low income audience of Free Basics, people with the longview have convinced startups that it’s not now, but down the line, that Free Basics will hurt them, by eroding an open web that allows for disruption of incumbents — you know, the kind that allows a social networking site hatched in a Cambridge dorm room to dethrone the behemoth incumbent MySpace.
“Let anyone in the world come and operate in this market,” says Sharad Sharma, cofounder of iSPIRT, a Bangalore-based think tank that has developed parts of the India stack. “But there are certain rules necessary to operate, so India doesn’t become a digital colony,” letting foreign interests come after customers but rigging the rules to keep native-born businesses from flourishing.
Part of that is ensuring a neutral web. Which is why when the Indian telecom regulator put out a dense 118-page paper discussing net neutrality last spring, Kiran Jonnalagadda got a call.
Jonnalagadda first started mucking around on his dad’s IBM compatible after school in 1991, and blazed into the digital millennial generation, starting a LiveJournal blog in 2000. A decade later, he was working as a web developer inside a multistory Bangalore office complex called the Carlton Towers, when a cable caught fire, and smoke billowed through the air ducts. While other office workers hurled themselves out the windows in panic (some to their deaths), he and his officemates tied wet towels around their faces, leaned out the window, and Jonnalagadda tweeted out 140-character reports. He survived, and months later opened HasGeek, a tech conference production company in a stucco house a few blocks from the towers, and joined the Bangalore startup boom.
When the telecom regulator’s net neutrality paper dropped, Nikhil Pahwa, the Delhi-based editor of the telecom news site Medianama, was appalled. The paper took on net neutrality, differential pricing, and the licensing of internet companies — all skewed to favor telecoms. “That paper was 118 pages of bad ideas,” Pahwa says. “It was bizarrely bad. We thought that access to the internet was never going to be the same again.” He immediately reached out to his contacts in the digital community to foment some popular opposition, recruiting Jonnalagadda to run the tech arm of a grassroots campaign. The HasGeek team put up the website SaveTheInternet.in, including a call to submit letters to the regulators in favor of net neutrality. Others, like iSPIRT’s Sharma, helped lobby startup founders to sign letters to the regulators, calling his contacts who mostly weren’t hip to net neutrality to convince them, one by one.
But the real 10x push came from a bit of comedy: Inspired by the John Oliver net neutrality sketch during the United States’ own debate on the issue, SaveTheInternet.in asked the Bombay-based satire troupe All India Bakchod with its 1.49 million YouTube subscribers to produce a call-to-action sketch on the subject. After the video hit, everyone from Bollywood stars to parliament members tweeted in support, network effects blossomed, and a million Indians submitted letters in favor of net neutrality to the regulators by the April deadline. “That’s the first time something in India had happened like this — it was all online,” Jonnalagadda says. “It shocked a lot of people. The politicians couldn’t believe how this could happen without people on the ground.”
With multiple agencies in the Indian government still mulling the issues, the regulator in December ordered that Free Basics be halted, asked Indians to submit their opinions, and promised a ruling by February. Facebook launched the billboards, and it was time to invoke the readymade SaveTheInternet.in constituency again.
A key part of Facebook’s bid for Free Basics is the narrative that it gets the unconnected poor online. Internet.org’s Daniels calls it a “bridge to the internet,” and wrote in an extensive Q&A: “40% of people who start their online journey at Free Basics go on to access the full internet within 30 days.” (The claim has been dismissed by reporters as dubious, and drives opponents crazy because they only have Facebook’s word, not raw data. Facebook declined my request to elaborate.) The petition Facebook circulated on its platform said: “It helps those who can’t afford to pay for data, or who need a little help getting started online.” In his Times of India op-ed, Zuckerberg gives the example of Ganesh, a farmer, who uses Free Basics to look up weather information during monsoon season and commodity prices to get better deals, and now invests in new crops and livestock. The ad never states, but leads one to assume, that Ganesh wasn’t on the web before: “…if people lost access to free basic services they lose access to all the opportunities offered by the Internet today.”
In short, the branding is: Free Basics starts people on a journey to the full internet, and if they don’t have free basic services, they lose the internet.
If only for curiosity’s sake, I thought it worth digging into who the users of Free Basics are. I asked the dozen people I interviewed — for or against Free Basics — if they knew anyone who used it. Only one person did: an NGO worker who uses the anti-domestic violence app My Rights to supplement two-day women’s rights trainings in villages, featured in a Free Basics promo. Of course, only the women who subscribed to Reliance could use the app for free, and the worker had no idea if the women continued to use the app after the workers left.
I asked Facebook to put me in touch with Free Basics users. They steered me towards Pavankumar Shende, who they said was a farmer who lives in a small town five hours outside of Mumbai. I was expecting someone who was a lot like the story of Ganesh, maybe accessing the internet for the first time.
When I called him with a Hindi translator on the line, I found out Shende was a 28-year-old farm surveyor who earns 10,000 rupees a month (about US $150). Free Basics was not what got him on the internet for the first time, he said: he’d been surfing the web and had a Facebook account for five years, paying 100 to 200 rupees a month for prepaid data packs, or two percent of his earnings. Several months ago, he got a notification on his phone that he could get Facebook for free with Internet.org. He started using free data for Facebook and some of the other Free Basics offerings like BBC and a tech news site, and to check AccuWeather for forecasts he could pass onto his father, who farms rice. The two to three hours he spends online each day has remained consistent pre- and post-Free Basics, but his monthly data bill has dropped to about 50 rupees a month. He still goes off-platform for Google searches (“Google is Google,” he says).
In short, Free Basics isn’t what got him on either the internet or Facebook. It was a discount. And one that Reliance eats — since, according to Facebook, Reliance absorbs the cost of free data. I contacted two of his teenage friends who also use Free Basics and heard the same story: they’d already been on the internet and Facebook for three to five years, though they switched to Reliance in order to get the discount.
While hopelessly anecdotal, their stories aren’t entirely in line with Facebook’s narrative. They are in line, however, with Reliance’s advertising for Free Basics. On an analyst call last year, Reliance said the main reason they offered the program was to get their WhatsApp users onto the “actual internet.” The ads — paid for by both Reliance and Facebook— are far from the pictures of the farmers and village schoolgirls used on Facebook’s website. The recent ads don’t mention the words “Free Basics.” Instead, the ads play down the supposed charity aspect and tout its sexiest offering: “Free Facebook” and “Enjoy Facebook without data pack.” Video commercials feature middle class, urban 20-somethings on a hayride and eating take-out in a hip apartment, followed by a street protest with young folks holding candles and demanding “I Want Free Internet.” In one IRL guerrilla advertising stunt, motorcyclists zoomed around a city holding posters reading “Free Facebook.”
The marketing has been working. A Reliance franchisee in a middle class shopping district in Bangalore told me that customers regularly come in asking for “Free Facebook.” At his store, he estimates they’re about 50 percent broke students that go in and out of being able to afford new data packs, and 50 percent low-income adults.
I contacted Facebook about Shende’s story. A rep softened the “internet journey” phrasing to a subtler one of lowering barriers to the internet overall: “The goal of Free Basics is to bring down the affordability and awareness barriers that are preventing people from accessing online services, particularly people who are new to the internet or beginners (not necessarily first-time users)… For instance, they could have used it once but couldn’t afford to buy another data plan, or tried it but didn’t know what services to use, so they didn’t keep going back. So Free Basics focuses on making it more affordable for people to use data (by offering it for free), and awareness (giving people access to services that they might not have known about.).”
The truth remains that for at least three guys in the state of Maharashtra, Free Basics is basically a coupon. And they — like the rural Indian women interviewed by a newspaper — would like Google included, please.
Leaving Babajob’s office in mid-January, I hailed an Ola Cab to the HasGeek headquarters to see how the movement was going. On the way, I called up Jonnalagadda to give the young driver directions in the regional language of Kannada; though the driver ran the Ola app on a smartphone, he, along with tons of other drivers I rode with in India, didn’t know how to operate the GPS. I was reminded of my talk a day prior with Prathibha Sastry, a startup fixer who anecdotally surveyed internet use across rural India in a road trip project known as Digital Desh Drive. Sastry met me at a cafe at a sleek mall still decorated with Christmas wreathes in downtown Bangalore, and chatted between business calls and tweeting promos for a live Twitter Q & A with a tech-friendly government official.
While interviewing shop owners on Digital Desh, Sastry found most were on the internet — including a fisherman who sent pics of his catch to the wholesalers while still on his boat via WhatsApp. Some “borrowed” the neighboring merchants’ wifi or hot-spotted off coworkers’ phones. Internet access wasn’t the biggest gap she saw, digital literacy was. “Conduct digital literacy classes,” Sastry says, because people still want a human to show them how things work.
Still, there was one certain service of which all Indians I talked to were aware. The same driver who wanted human instructions was amused when I snapped a photo out the window of a Reliance “Free Facebook” ad on a bus stop. Between my English and his Kannada, “Facebook” was one of our few common words.
After much block circling, he dropped me off at the HasGeek house on a leafy residential street. Jonnalagadda was in full campaign mode, monitoring and tweeting out news stories, following the fervent back-and-forth between regulators and Facebook over the company’s online petition. Yet Jonnalagadda says that this time, much of the opposition work was done by Facebook’s ubiquitous ad campaign itself. “Indians don’t trust whitewash advertising. We have history of tainted companies trying to fix their image with ads,” specifically after India’s economy liberalized in the ’90s and companies tried to smooth over scandals with over-the-top newspaper ad blitzes, he says. “This was like a game of judo, letting the opponent stumble on their own might.”
Last week, Jonnalagadda flew to Delhi for the third time in the past year to speak in favor of net neutrality at a town hall before the regulators. While there, discussions started among the SaveTheInternet.in advocates about how differential pricing would jeopardize the Start Up India initiative launched by Prime Minister Modi just the previous weekend, announcing tax and compliance exemptions for tech companies.
By last weekend, Jonnalagadda and his team released one final Hail Mary letter to Modi on SaveTheInternet.in’s site, stating exactly that: “What we decide in the next few weeks will have lasting effects; it will shape the trajectory of our future,” they wrote. They asked Modi to issue a statement and make sure the Indian government protected net neutrality. In two days, more than 2,000 people signed, including 800 startup founders.
With a mega-powered spotlight shining on the usually insider-y regulatory process and Modi himself, the opponents made it as difficult as possible for the government to allow differential pricing. “They traditionally take a middle ground approach and try to please both sides,” says Pahwa, of the regulator’s rulings. “I think what we’ve done so far is at least give us a chance to shift the middle ground closer to our point of view. We’re clawing back space bit by bit, day by day…The carriers weren’t expecting this: they’d always had an easy ride.”
It appears they won’t this time. Over the weekend, the Times of India published a scoop from “top sources,” reporting that the regulator would ban offering free or discounted services — including Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp — or the carrier’s own music or messenger services at a discounted price. Such services create “a distortion in the way internet is accessed by the masses,” an unnamed source told the newspaper, and “are against the concept of digital democracy.” CNBC Moneycontrol reported, also from anonymous sources, that regulators is likely to allow discounts if the entire internet is included in the deal, not just specific sites.
SaveTheInternet.in advocates are holding their breath. Even if the ruling goes their way, “We fully expect the telcos to fight it,” Jonnalagadda says. “We anticipate having to fight it again.”
And in the weeks leading up to the decision, Facebook had already started its reckoning. In mid-January, Internet.org’s Daniels told me that if they couldn’t go ahead with Free Basics, they would focus on its other initiatives to connect India — wifi hotspots, internet-delivering drones.
“Whatever the outcome, we’ll work with the community here to bring more people online to make the world more open and connected,” he said.
He seemed like a guy who’d been considering Plan B.
Photo of covered billboard by Philippe Calia. All others by author.
More Reading on Free Basics:
Meanwhile on Medium, Rohin Dharmakumar writes about the potential for “platform abuse” if tech companies poke their own users to support political causes, as well as some speculative fiction about Ganesh the farmer’s fate in a post-Free Basics 2025. (On an equally quirky note, Jon Auerbach writes a script of Zuck and the Simpsons discussing Free Basics.)
Umang Galaiya argues in this piece that Free Basics should be given a chance: “Once these people in rural areas discover what kind of power Internet has, I’m sure they will pay to access all the amazing parts that aren’t included in Free Basics.” Ashish Dua also chimes in with support, saying in this post that “there’s no such thing as free lunch.”
Read everything the Mediumverse has to say about Free Basics here.