Is free always desirable?


Free Basics of Facebook ignites heated debate on net neutrality..

net-freebasisOver last month or so, a storm has been gathering momentum over the issue of net neutrality in India, which has assumed greater urgency with stalled launch of Free Basics, the new offering of Facebook, which the company claims will immensely benefit a large number of people by giving them free access to Internet in a limited manner. While on one the company says Free Basics is a boon to poor people who can’t get online for cost reasons, the consensus among internet experts, academicians and policy makers is evolving around the view point that Free Basics is against net neutrality, can distort level playing field on Internet and is detrimental to users and the country in long run. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has held up its release in India as it mulls over the crucial issue of whether the product violates the net neutrality, the claims of the company that it does not, notwithstanding.

Free Basics is the rebranded, the program that was launched by Facebook in partnership with local telecoms firms in the developing world. Through the program, Facebook offers free internet access to the users of the telecom service providers with whom it has tied up. However, through the program, users are unable to surf the entire Internet; they can access only Facebook, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and some other websites and services. According to the company, over the last year, it has rolled out the program to more than couple dozen countries, including the US, through more than 35 operators with 15 million people using it already.

But it is not about numbers of subscribers or countries in which Free Basics has been rolled out and is operating. Experts in India have expressed deep concern about the ability and intent of Facebook to distort Internet with Free Basics. Most of them feel that the program goes against net neutrality and this opinion has forced TRAI to hold the program even as it studies the opinions sought from public on the issue of net neutrality.

Broadly, as per the concept of net neutrality, Internet has to be network neutral, which means regardless of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the telecom ppaler, user should be able to serf Internet without any discrimination to any particular website. The ISPs or telecom operators cannot give a competitive advantage to any particular website or application. The Free Basics, according to experts, violates this basic rule. It not only allows a very limited number of websites, its submission guidelines also forbid JavaScript, video, large images, and Flash. Further, since it does not permit secure connections using HTTPS, it can read all data passing through the platform. Also Facebook’s own sites like Facebook and WhatsApp exclusive for users in their respective segments.

The Facebook has countered the allegation by saying that it is ready to allow competitors like Google+ (Plus) and Twitter on Free Basics, and allow third party audits, but that has hardly placated experts. According to Pavan Duggal, a leading expert on cyber law, it does not change the basic character of the program which is discriminatory in nature. “Merely getting third party audit done does not solve the problem that the program is intrinsically designed to exploit data,” says Duggal.

Experts have also questioned two significant claims of Facebook, namely the ability of Internet to pull people out of poverty, and that the program serves no commercial interest of the company. As per experts, only a very small percentage of people under poverty line or rural population understand English which is the basic Internet language. In this situation, how much can Free Basics help in eliminating poverty is questionable. Secondly, it is debatable whether Free Basics does not serve any commercial interest. As Duggal says, “Now is the age of data driven economy and under the garb of free Internet, they (Faecbook) want to have access to data of huge number of Indians.”

Then there are issues related to the impact of discriminatory Internet offerings. First of all, a country like ours which aspires to become a software powerhouse, cannot afford to have programs that prohibit application and websites which Free Basics and such other programs can. It inhibits competition and thus IT development. Secondly, because they allow only limited websites, subscribers get only a partial and potentially distorted exposure to Internet which is dangerous, because it can open possibility of opinion building by service providers. Thus, offerings such as Free Basics or Airtel Zero can develop what Duggal terms digital islands in which people are held hostage and exposed to only part of Internet.

According to Amba Kak of Oxford Internet Institute, less experienced, low income groups prefer access to an open and unrestricted Internet, and are willing to use complete Internet for lesser time compared to some Internet for long time. In other words, they would prefer to compromise on time instead of content. This has message for service providers and policymakers.

There are service providers and telecom players who have taken alternative route to offering limited Internet free of cost. Grameenphone of Bangladesh is perhaps the best example. It gives users free data after they watch an advertisement. In India, Aircel is giving full internet access for free at 64 kbps download speed for some initial period of telecom service. Gigato offered data for free for surfing some sites. Orange in Africa offered some free Internet on buying a handset.

India is a huge and still largely unexplored market. Further, it has weak data protection laws. In this environment, government has to be very cautious in allowing services that can result in data theft or distort Internet which has today become most powerful source of information. Hopefully TRAI will ensure that programs like Free Basics do not violate net neutrality for which India anyway does not have a dedicated law.