What would have gone wrong if India’s telecom regulator Trai had decided to support programmes like Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel’s Zero Rating instead of issuing the regulation that prohibits discriminatory tariffs? Here are possible scenarios to look at in case the discriminatory tariffs were allowed as they are in some countries.
Possible impact on elections
Facebook would have continued to amass its product — eyeballs. Indian eyeballs would be more valuable than others for three reasons: 1. Facebook would have an additional layer of surveillance thanks to the Free Basics proxy server which stores the time, the site url and data transferred for all the other destinations featured in the walled garden; 2. As part of Digital India, most government entities will set up Facebook pages and a majority of the interaction with citizens would happen on the social media rather than the websites of government entities and, consequently, Facebook would know what is and what is not working in governance; 3. Given the financial disincentive to leave the walled garden, the surveillance would be total.
What would this mean for democracies? Eight years ago, Facebook began to engineer the News Feed to show more posts of a user’s friends voting in order to influence voting behavior. It introduced the “I’m Voting” button into 61 million users’ feeds during the 2010 US presidential elections to increase voter turnout and found that this kind of social pressure caused people to vote. Facebook has also admitted to populating feeds with posts from friends with similar political views. During the 2012 Presidential elections, Facebook was able to increase voter turnout by altering 1.9 million news feeds.
Indian eyeballs may not be that lucrative in terms of advertising. But these users are extremely valuable to political parties and others interested in influencing elections. Facebook’s notifications to users when their friends signed on to the “Support Free Basics” campaign was configured so that you were informed more often than with other campaigns. In other words, Facebook is not just another player on their platform. Given that margins are often slim, would Facebook be tempted to try and install a government of its choice in India during the 2019 general elections?
In times of disasters
Most people defending Free Basics and defending forbearance as the regulatory response in 2015-16 make the argument that “95 per cent of Internet users in developing countries spend 95 per cent of their time on Facebook”.
This is not too far from the truth as LirneAsia demonstrated in 2012 with most people using Facebook in Indonesia not even knowing they were using the internet. In other words, they argue that regulators should ignore the fringe user and fringe usage and only focus on the mainstream. The cognitive bias they are appealing to is smaller numbers are less important.
Since all the sublime analogies in the Net Neutrality debate have been taken, forgive us for using the scatological. That is the same as arguing that since we spend only five per cent of our day in toilets, only five per cent of our home’s real estate should be devoted to them.
Everyone agrees that it is far easier to live in a house without a bedroom than a house without a toilet. Even extremely low probabilities or ‘Black Swan’ events can be terribly important! Imagine you are an Indian at the bottom of the pyramid. You cannot afford to pay for data on your phone and, as a result, you rarely and nervously stray out of the walled garden of Free Basics.
During a natural disaster you are able to use the Facebook Safety Check feature to mark yourself safe but the volunteers who are organising both offline and online rescue efforts are using a wider variety of platforms, tools and technologies.
Since you are unfamiliar with the rest of the Internet, you are ill equipped when you try to organise a rescue for you and your loved ones.
What is net neutrality?
According to this principle, all service and governments should not discriminate between various data in the internet and consider all as one. They cannot give preference to one set of apps/websites while restricting others.
Here is a timeline:
2006: Trai invites opinions regarding the regulation of net neutrality from various telecom industry bodies and stakeholders.
February 2012: Sunil Bharti Mittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel, suggests services like YouTube should pay an interconnect charge to network operators, saying that if telecom operators are building highways for data then there should be a tax on the highway.
July 2012: Bharti Airtel’s Jagbir Singh suggests large Internet companies like Facebook and Google should share revenues with telecom companies.
August 2012: Data from M-Lab said You Broadband, Airtel, BSNL were throttling traffic of P2P services like BitTorrent.
Feb 2013: Killi Kiruparani, minister for state for communications and technology, says government will look into legality of VoIP services like Skype.
June 2013: Airtel starts offering select Google services to cellular broadband users for free, fixing a ceiling of 1GB on the data.
Feb 2014: Airtel operations CEO Gopal Vittal says companies offering free messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp should be regulated.
August 2014: Trai rejects proposal from telecom companies to make messaging application firms share part of their revenue with the carriers/government.
Nov 2014: Trai begins investigation on Airtel implementing preferential access with special packs for WhatsApp and Facebook at rates lower than standard data rates.
Dec 2014: Airtel launches 2G, 3G data packs with VoIP data excluded in the pack, later launches VoIP pack.
Feb 2015: Facebook launches Internet.org with Reliance Communications, aiming to provide free access to 38 websites through single app.
March 2015: Trai publishes consultation paper on regulatory framework for Over The Top (OTT) services, explaining what net neutrality in India will mean and its impact, invited public feedback.
April 2015: Airtel launches Airtel Zero, a scheme where apps sign up with Airtel to get their content displayed free across the network. Flipkart, which was in talks for the scheme, had to pull out after users started giving it poor rating after hearing the news.
April 2015: Ravi Shankar Prasad, communication and information technology minister, announces formation of a committee to study net neutrality issues in the country.
April 2015: Many organisations under Free Software Movement of India protested in various parts of the country. In a counter measure, Cellular Operators Association of India launches campaign, saying its aim is to connect the unconnected citizens, demanding VoIP apps be treated as cellular operators.
April 2015: Trai releases names and email addresses of users who responded to the consultation paper in millions. Anonymous India group, take down Trai’s website in retaliation, which the government could not confirm.
Sept 2015: Facebook rebrands Internet.org as Free Basics, launches in the country with massive ads across major newspapers in the country. Faces huge backlash from public.
Feb 2016: Trai rules in favour of net neutrality, barring telecom operators from charging different rates for data services.