My Way or the Information Superhighway

Zuckerberg tries and fails to bring Free Basics to India

It was late in December and my first time traveling on the newly constructed highway between the Bangalore airport and the city. A ride that would otherwise take hours passes by quickly on AC public transit busses, plush by any standards. On your way into the city center you’ll notice large billboards, four stories high, advertising Facebook’s Free Basics— which by now is likely covered over owing to Indians acute sensitivity to foreign intervention. It’s an image of two friends glowering over basic Internet access in what is promised as a pathway to a better future for India’s poorest.

I don’t know the bus route nor exactly where I’m headed but I was told to head towards the city center. There are few bus shelters along the way so I get off on the side of the road and walk the rest, on sidewalks if they exist, or tightly skirting the edge of the car, scooter, rickshaw busy roads. In the six years since my last visit, Bangalore has grown, sprouting entire suburbs each year solely to support the city’s tech booms. It is busier than ever but its basic conditions seem to have changed little for this darling Silicon Valley of India.

Bangalore Sidestreets, India © Yung Rama

Unemployment, pollution, illiteracy and healthcare are still a gradual climb, a clusterfuck in this subcontinent both newborn and ageless. It is as though we like things difficult, or just that we’ve gotten used to it. Or perhaps more simply, our missteps in economic liberalization are still reconciling the ghosts of victorian holocausts wrought from Malthusian economics. Implementation of the Namma metro system has been slack for a city that very much needs better public transportation, I saw the first pylons go up a decade ago and they say it will still take another 16 years to complete. For now, three-wheelers flock to pedestrians with promises of cheap two-stroke transport for a dollar. None of the drivers however know where my friend’s Wood Street apartment is, nor do they have a smart phone or a data plan to search for it. Rather than go for a circuitous trip about the city’s one way street, I find a hotel with wifi, buy internet service for an hour (200INR), ping my friend and map a route to his place through the unmarked maze of streets at odd angles in Bangalore.

Kanyakumari, India © Yung Rama
We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet. — Mark Zuckerberg

Living in America, it’s quite easy to champion the “Value of Connectivity”, realtime traffic maps, restaurant checkins, hashtag movements, uber transport and generally life on demand from any number of contract workers. But in this lower middle income country, the ease and speedy lifestyle isn’t quite here yet. With a forecast of 7% annual economic growth, one suggested solution to modernizing India, according to Deloitte, is extending internet penetration, lifting millions out of poverty by offering access to apps that offer health information, financial services and online education. India, it would seem, is just a click away from modernity with Free Basics — the controversial project to offer free access to Facebook and a slew of approved applications.

While that promise seems attractive, studying the wealth gap, Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis warns us that technology has “not leveled the playing field at all in terms of the difference between rich kids and poor kids.” If America is any indication, the internet has done little to improve social mobility. Despite Deloitte’s recommendations for India, remember that “affluent Americans use the Internet in ways that are mobility-enhancing, whereas poorer, less educated Americans typically use it in ways that are not”, according to Putnam. More than likely and evident in telecom billboards, Free Basics is really just a coupon for a data discount.

India’s recent history is littered with often massive and controversial infrastructure projects promising modernity through foreign investment, notably, the World Bank funding the Sardar Sarovar Dam Projects. Zuck seems to be the latest to champion for an #IncredibleIndia with his technophilanthropy, comparing his Internet to the much needed services of basic health care and education offerings. I’m skeptical of how Internet clicks improves health or education outcomes as is so often championed. We lead more sedentary lifestyles, are more distracted than ever and quite possibly lonelier. Nonetheless, I concede that the Internet has manifested some benefits, for some.

Google for India, on the other hand is moving forward with initiatives to bring internet access to rural areas and railway terminals in what would be the world’s largest public wifi network. Sundar Pichai’s focus seems to be on bringing internet access and training to women and small businesses. Along with affordable Android One phones, Google it seems is hoping to lower data tariffs and install free access points to the Internet at railway stations.

Facebook, in its initial bid for the next billion users is pushing forward with Free Basics, a move plainly opposed to Net Neutrality, never mind that it is seen as subaltern service offering befitting poorly Indians. This basic tier sounds a lot like AOL, a walled service that provides an advantage to select apps and services. But despite an estimated $15–44M campaign to gather support and roll out the service in India, regulatory agencies in India called for a halt to the service, promoting Zuck and others to educate Indians on their failure to see the big picture of Free Basics; and the impact it would have on Maharashtran farmers like Ganesh.

Colombo Fort Station, Sri Lanka © Yung Rama

Should India follow Facebook’s way or the information superhighway? Why offer the poor a poorer version of the Internet? While Zuck argues that “some access is better than none,” a study conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute found that lower income groups prefer open Internet, and were instead willing to reduce their usage than their access. If Facebook successfully moves their model of private Internet, other telecom providers will follow, offering selective access to different groups. Despite what Zuck says, Free Basics and operator controlled Internet access challenge Net Neutrality principles which fermented the backlash from India’s digital vanguard SaveTheInternet. In How India Pierced Facebook’s Free Internet Program, Lauren Smiley shows how a loose collective seems to have stopped or at least slowed the tide of telecom operated discounted internet services for now.

At least this much is evident, the debate on how internet companies bring the next one billion people online is just getting started, while the digital policies adopted in India and elsewhere cannot but cause waves on American shores someday. So how do we bring the next one billion people online, and perhaps more importantly, for what reason?