Free the Net of private profit

When a large American Internet company spends close to Rs 100 crore on a massive advertising campaign to push for a free service it is offering users of the Internet, something does not smell right. Which highly profitable company, and its money-making partners in India, would give free Internet time “to connect India”, without expecting much more in return?
Free Basics, the rechristened version of Facebook’s is a platform to provide preferential access to a selective set of apps and developers. Reliance Communications offers Free Basics under a “Freenet” button on mobile phones. It implies users will not be charged for Facebook and other apps and content accessed on Free Basics, but will be charged for data usage in downloading and accessing content on other apps and Internet domains.
The Internet giant Facebook thought its lobbying and ad blitz would work, and not face the united opposition of millions of Internet users in India. Facebook’s advertisements talk of “connecting one billion Indians to jobs, education and opportunities online”, but warn that “Free Basic is at risk of being banned, slowing progress towards digital equality in India”. They conceal more than they reveal.
What the proposal by Facebook offers for free is a limited bouquet of sites, including its own. It keeps out the vast universe of sites on the Internet, specially big ones such as Google, YouTube, Amazon, Flipkart, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter, PayTM, eBay, Indian Railways, BSE, NSE, and the many millions of sites that make the Internet useful. For all these important sites as well as the small number of sites on offer on Free Basics currently access is free and the sites make their money by charging for advertising. Telecom service providers such as Airtel, Reliance and Vodafone make money by charging per megabyte of data accessed. For the sites on Facebook Free Basics, these operators (who have spent vast sums in building their networks) will not charge anything, but they will make it up by increasing the charge for accessing the rest of the Net. This, point out critics of Free Basics, violates the principle of “net neutrality”, or paying equal sums for data accessed from any site.
In a recent article, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook wrote, “Half the people who use Free Basics to go online for the first time pay to access the full Internet within 30 days… Instead of recognising the fact that Free Basics is opening up the whole Internet, they continue to claim — falsely — that this will make the Internet more like a walled garden.”
If Facebook really wanted to offer free Internet, it could have used the Rs 100 crore spent on advertising to sponsor new users on the full Internet. That would have given five million Indians full Internet access for a year. Internet can fulfil its educational and developmental role by paring costs to a minimum so that it reaches as many people as mobile phones.
That still doesn’t answer the question, what does Facebook gain by the Free Basics proposal. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is examining it and has yet to come to a decision. Yet, it is worth noting that for Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, data from their customers is of immense value. Whether it is Google recording visits to websites or emails to target specific advertisements to its users, or Facebook analysing the overlapping circles of friends and their interests for its own targeting of ads, such data is vital to their analysis and income.
Though they each have around 1.5 billion page views among their users, Google is currently around five times bigger with revenue in 2014 of $66 billion compared to $12.7 billion for Facebook. Free Basics is seen as a way to get people away from Google in the two countries that still have a large, growing market — China and India. Since Facebook is banned in China, India is the only large market left where an effort can be made to displace Google.
Yet, there is some validity to the argument that Free Basics, being free, does allow people, who normally would not have gone on the Internet to go to this “walled garden” of a limited version of the Net, where they only access what Facebook, or the government, wants them to. The only counter is to lower costs to make the service more affordable. This can be done either by increasing competition or lowering spectrum charges and making 2G access to the Net more pervasive so that the use of Internet becomes as universal as the use of over 950 million mobile phones.
It is only when this happens that the real benefits of the Internet to society will become apparent. Its use as an aid to education, or to get vital information about agricultural markets or to deal more confidently with bureaucratic or legal procedures should not be under-estimated. But the path to this lies not in leaving the tap open for foreign Internet operators but getting our own act together.
One valuable lesson from the Facebook face-off should be that we have to make the 2G Internet more affordable for the disadvantaged. The main reason this not happening is its high cost. A danger that companies like Google or Facebook pose to civil society is that they are gatekeepers of vast amounts of personal data which they often sell, sometimes to security agencies. Analysts in the West talk of the surveillance already prevalent in countries like the US. To give one example, Evgeny Morozov, an eminent analyst and critic of the Internet, writes, “Google can use an algorithm to analyse our email communications and sell us the matching ads. Google could have easily chosen to encrypt our communications in a way that its own algorithms wouldn’t be able to decipher, depriving both itself and the National Security Agency of much-coveted data.”
There is a real danger in India of personal data being sold to the government. With the well-publicised bonhomie between Mr Zuckerberg and our Prime Minister, it is not difficult to imagine such a chilling eventuality.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist)
( Source : deccan chronicle )
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