There is No Such Thing as Free Basics

Posted by Subhashish Panigrahi at Feb 14, 2016 11:37 AM |
India would not see the rain of Free Basics advertisements on billboards with images of farmers and common people explaining how much they could benefit from this Firefox project. Because the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has taken a historical step by banning the differential pricing without discriminating services.

The article was published in Bangalore Mirror on February 9, 2016.

In their notes, TRAI has explained, "In India, given that a majority of the population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting TSPs shape the users' Internet experience." Not just that, violation of this ban would cost Rs 50,000 every day.

Facebook's earlier plan was to launch Free Basics in India by making a few websites—that are mostly partners with Facebook—available for free. The company not just advertised heavily on billboards and commercials across the nation, it also embedded a campaign inside Facebook asking users to vote in support of Free Basics.

TRAI criticised Facebook's attempt for such a manipulative public provocation. However, Facebook was heavily criticised by many policy and Internet advocates, including non-profits groups like Free Software Movement of India and campaign.

The latter two collectives were strongly discouraging Free Basics by bringing public opinion wherein was used to send over 10 lakh emails to TRAI to disallow Free Basics.

Furthermore 500 start ups including major ones like Cleartrip, Zomato, Practo, Paytm and Cleartax also wrote to prime minister Narendra Modi requesting continued support for Net Neutrality — a concept that advocates equal treating of websites — on the Republic Day.

Stand-up comedy groups like AIB and East India Comedy had created humorous but informative videos explaining the regulatory debate and supporting net neutrality which went viral.

Technology critic and Quartz writer Alice Truong reacted saying: "Zuckerberg almost portrays net neutrality as a first-world problem that doesn't apply to India because having some service is better than no service."

In the light of differential pricing, news portal Medianama's founder Nikhil Pawa, in his opinion piece in Times of India, emphasised the way Aircel in India, Grameenphone in Bangladesh and Orange in Africa were providing free access to Internet with a sole motif of access to Internet, and criticised the walled Internet of Facebook that confines users inside Facebook only.

Had the differential pricing been allowed, it would have affected start ups and content-based smaller companies adversely, as they could never have managed to pay the high price to a partner service provider to make their service available for free.

On the other hand, tech-giants like Facebook could have easily managed to capture the entire market. Since the inception of the Facebook-run non-profit has run into a lot of controversies because of the hidden motive behind the claimed support for social cause.

The decision by the government has been welcomed largely in the country and outside.

In support of the move, Web We Want programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, Renata Avila, has shared saying,

"As the country with the second largest number of Internet users worldwide, this decision will resonate around the world.

"It follows a precedent set by Chile, the United States, and others which have adopted similar net neutrality safeguards. The message is clear: We can't create a two-tier Internet — one for the haves, and one for the have-nots. We must connect everyone to the full potential of the open Web."